Catching Up With: Breaking the Waves – 1996

Lars von Trier is a filmmaker whose reputation is hard to avoid, even if you have not seen any of his work. He refuses to spend any time in America, he was kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago for calling himself a Nazi, and for his downright sadistic relationship with the actors in his movies. But this Danish provocateur’s notoriety is mostly derived from his filmography, which is defined by unflinching portrayals of sexuality, class warfare, depression and in the case of 2009’s “Antichrist, talking foxes and genital mutilation. His cinematic universe isn’t exactly a picnic.

1996’s “Breaking the Waves” is emblematic of this well-known bleakness. Set in an isolated village on the Scottish coast with an affinity for the Old Testament, the film centers on Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a young, wide-eyed and deeply troubled young woman who is about to be married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), a vivacious oilman who immediately sticks out among this rigid, puritanical community, which views something as mundane as church bells as a blasphemous intrusion. Bess is a fragile soul. She has a strong bond with God, so much so that she has conversations with Him that may or not be psychotic delusions. She’s been praying her entire life for a man like Jan, which is why she is destroyed when he has to leave her for his job on the oil rig for weeks at a time. She selfishly prays for his return, a wish that is granted…when Jan is left paralyzed from the neck down after an on-site accident. Jan is as fiercely devoted to Bess as she is to him, but there is a selfishness that defines him, which leads to an unusual request; Jan wants Bess to have sex with other men, and tell him in explicit detail the specifics of each encounter. On the surface, it looks like a desperate attempt to keep a suddenly compromised marriage alive. But Jan says he’ll die if she doesn’t go through with it, so the whole deal is really emotional blackmail.

“Breaking the Waves” is a story of a woman who’s been subjected by selfish men her entire life, trying to please everyone while rarely finding true happiness for herself. It’s a sometimes savage look at the abuse of desire and faith.

But most importantly, it is a masterpiece.

This film is a sometimes overwhelming experience, as we watch a damaged, naive soul battered by the unforgiving landscape and culture she’s been surrounded by her whole life. But it’s impossible to come away from this film, whether you’re entranced or repulsed by it, without at least thinking about what von Trier is trying to say.

The director found a perfect vessel in Watson, who gives what is one of the greatest performances in contemporary cinema. Those enormous blue eyes that bulge with ecstatic wonder and narrow with frustrated subjugation, all funneled through that thick Scottish brogue, Bess is a person who has spent her life at the mercy of selfish men, both real and metaphysical.  The church that is like her second home feels like a tomb; women aren’t allowed to speak during services or even attend funerals. Bess was bred to live according to absolutes. Know your place, repress yourself sexually, wait for a husband to come and be prepared to mourn him when he inevitably dies. “You must learn to endure” is the credo her cruel mother bestows upon her. Bess doesn’t know how to compromise, and Watson makes her into a heartbreaking, unforgettable portrait of bruised womanhood.

Von Trier’s approach is stripped to the bone; the handheld cameras make the already gloomy Scottish countryside into a grainy wasteland of brown and tan, tarnished but able to contain moments of great beauty, portrayed in landscapes that underscore the chapter cards that divide the film. Watson throws numerous glances to these cameras like they’re her only friend, as if we are sharing in her ecstasy and tragedy.  But his approach to these characters is much more multi-faceted. As Bess desperately tries to please her husband via sexual torment with strangers, it’s easy to think this film is an exercise in misogyny, an accusation von Trier’s detractors often lob. But it’s not Bess’ fault she is sent on this journey. “Breaking the Waves” is a fable of selfish men and the damage they inflict on the women around them when they are subjugated. Bess is a virgin on her wedding day; she is released by the liberation provided by sex and the glam-rock soundtrack consisting of David Bowie and Mott the Hoople. Jan, who weaves between charisma and cruelty in the hands of the reliably great Skarsgård, thinks he’s doing Bess a favor by sleeping with any man she chooses, but it really is monstrous; Bess is a waif who learns far too late too start questioning what her world has taught her. Lars von Trier doesn’t have any misgivings about putting the women in his film through great persecution, but its apparent, in this film at least, that there is compassion in his approach.

“Breaking the Waves” is devastating, but it isn’t a slog. Great films can take on the characteristics of their protagonist, and this film is often as joyous, searching, howling and brutalized as Bess, who gives her soul to God and her body to her husband, both sacrifices unable to give her the happiness she wants more than anything. This movie’s notorious creator is trying to tell us something that should be universal: unconditional love and blind faith often devolve into cruelty, unconditional compassion, whether its from your countrymen or, as suggested in the film’s haunting, surprisingly hopeful final shot possibly from a higher power, is always essential. So is the movie.

Grade: A

 

Catching Up With: Computer Chess – 2013

Computer Chess (2013)

Even though the film is shot on ancient black-and-white video cameras with tubes in them that can’t even handle sunlight, Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” has an air of familiarity to it. It depicts a chess tournament in a non-descript hotel, likely somewhere in the Midwest, where the players are computer programmers, each with their own chess program, and the prize is $7,500 and the chance to play a game against the doddering, almost oblivious Professor Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary). The film opens like a mockumentary, with a panel lined with professors who do nothing but bloviate hot air about the future of technology. The film cuts to the competitors in the audience, zombified and trying to stay awake. Bujalski is keenly aware of how dull this man vs. technology struggle can be on the surface.

This film is set in the early 1980’s so the nerds that populate this lo-fi universe are still 30 years away from “geek chic.” Thrift store polos, thick aviator eyeglasses and social graces only a few steps above Raymond Babbitt rule this community. We get to know the MIT team (who make waves by having the tournament’s first-ever female participant), and the Cal Tech team, whose computer defies its own programming and intentionally loses chess matches. And then there’s Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who personifies smug amusement but also arrives broke, roomless and with a penchant for stealing pills.

I have not seen Bujalski’s previous films, most notably his 2003 film “Funny Ha Ha,” which is considered a key text in the “mumblecore” sub-genre (for those who don’t know, mumblecore makes higher-profile independent films look like “Ben-Hur” in comparison, with more stuttering). And for a while, “Computer Chess” mines the comedy from this tournament in the hilariously designed computers (some look like mini-refrigerators, others look like revved-up typewriters), the spectacularly tone-deaf commentary from the organizers, and Papageorge’s misaventures in trying to find a place to stay. It’s a story of computers that have more humanity than the players.

And then things get weird. Really weird.

The Cal Tech team’s computer betrays it’s own algorithm and loses matches at will, so much so that the team forfeits a match before making a single move. A group of middle-aged couples arrive at the hotel as part of a self-help seminar that consists of digging through bread and re-enacting human birth in an attempt to reconnect with each other. The filmmaking, already odd in its approach thanks to cameras that make your childhood Christmas home movies look like they were shot by Roger Deakins, gets even more and more screwy. The editing becomes faster and more haphazard, images are randomly super-imposed, and scenes get repeated like a vinyl record with a stuck needle, or even shift into color. Also, an army of cats show up and commandeer their own hotel room.  And this is all before two members of the couple’s therapy group try to seduce Peter (Patrick Riester), the timid virgin from the Cal Tech team, into a menage a trois.

As these scenarios pile up and the film’s themes of man vs. technology become more twisted and infused with what little narrative the film has, “Computer Chess” doesn’t just go off the reservation, it goes off “Planet Earth.” Bujalski puts up a front of techno-parody only to indulge his inner David Lynch and unleash a plethora of ghosts into this run-down machine. But this isn’t a horror film. As it becomes more and more of a mindfuck, leading up to a shocking, bizarre and hilarious final confrontation between Peter and a mysterious woman, “Computer Chess” cements itself as one of 2013’s most surprising, daring and altogether fascinating films. Andrew Bujalski flips the script by setting speculative science-fiction in the recent past, by using technology that’s even older. “Computer Chess” starts out as a lark and becomes a strange thoughtful exploration into what computers are built to do, whether it’s to play chess or reach a point of self-awareness and develop a soul, and whether human connections are permanently out of whack or doomed altogether. The film’s surreal pleasures are best left unspoiled, but I will say that in this hotel, which starts to feel like the last place in the universe, “Computer Chess” shows us that artificial intelligence may not stay artificial for long.

Grade: A-

Catching Up With: Army of Darkness – 1993

I mentioned in my review of “Evil Dead 2” that the movie disappointed me in the fact that it didn’t provide enough of a fresh spin on the demon/cabin/mayhem formula set down by the first movie. Luckily, “Army of Darkness” has no such problem. At the end of “ED2” Ash (Bruce Campbell) was sent back in time to the year 1300 by the Necronomicon, unwillingly fulfilling the prophecy of a chainsaw-wielding “Hero From the Sky.” Stuck in medieval times and immediately captured by the nearby kingdom, Ash once again has to fight off the evil curse of the Book of the Dead.

Time travel is a great way to bring something new into the crazy universe this series exists in. “Army of Darkness” also has a huge cult following, just like the Evil Deads. But the legions of “Screwheads” may be disappointed to learn that “Army of Darkness” is an ecstatic lark of a comedy-adventure but not much more  from director Sam Raimi, But before you arm your boomsticks, I don’t think it’s a complete waste of time and effort.

Ash is in captivity at the hands of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), until he proves himself in battle against one of the “Dead-ites.” Wowing the primitive “screwheads” with his chainsaw and sawed-off shotgun, he quickly earns their adoration, and he demands that the wise man of the court send him home, which can only be accomplished by securing the Book of the Dead. That’s a sketch of a story, and for the most part it’s a sketch of a movie. What gives it some life however is , like the first two films, Raimi’s insane wit and sense of style. With an even bigger budget, “Army of Darkness” is gorgeously shot, with colors bursting off the screen, truly creating a living comic book, along with some still-impressive special effects. Also, Bruce Campbell is a freaking rock star in this movie. He still gets put through the ringer, with an undead clone literally bursting from inside of him. But he is in full action-hero mode, selling the bounty of one-liners (“Good, bad, I’m just the guy with the gun”) like an extra-gonzo Han Solo.

But, the movie doesn’t have much else. It’s a good thing this movie runs a scant 80 minutes, because it may have worn out its welcome if it ran longer. The film mostly consists of the epic battle between Ash and Arthur’s army against the legion of Deadites, who have ensnared the maiden Sheila (Embeth Davidtz). Made up of legions of animated skeletons (a tribute to “Jason and the Argonauts” and the work of  FX legend Ray Harryhausen). The battle is a mixed bag; it is funny and cleverly shot and staged, showcasing Raimi’s affinity for Three Stooges slapstick. But the humor comes from one of my motal enemies: puns. There are so many painfully lame jokes that will have you rolling your eyes quite often. I just don’t find enjoyment in a skeleton saying he has a “bone to pick” with someone. It’s annoying on “Sex and the City” and it’s annoying here. The campy humor and tone gave me the same reaction that I had to Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie: this is a Power Rangers episode with a bigger budget and better acting. I know “Army of Darkness” is self-aware, but there is only so much stupidity one can take. It stops being enjoyable and starts being exhausting.

But this film still has style to burn and the wacky charisma of Bruce Campbell to keep it afloat, but just barely. Overall this series has been a slight disappointment for me, with “Army” and “Evil Dead 2” being mild disappointments after the fantastic first movie. Neither one came close to Raimi’s excellent 2009 horror comeback “Drag Me to Hell.” It might be expectations, it might be my prejudice of beat-up old Oldsmobiles. There is still plenty of gory, irreverent fun to be had.

Grade: B-

Catching Up With: Evil Dead 2 – 1987

If the original “Evil Dead” was writer/director Sam Raimi’s “Mean Streets,” than “Evil Dead 2,” made six years later on a much larger budget, is his “Goodfellas,” in that it takes the skeleton of the first film and expands on its execution; every insane idea Raimi had that was limited by a small budget in this movie. There’s more gore, more Scorsese-on-crack camerawork, more everything. But does bigger mean better in the case of “Evil Dead 2”? Not quite. I know this movie is hailed as possibly the greatest horror sequel ever made (a title that can be filed under “Faint Praise, Damning With”), and it does improve on the first film in several areas, but I think it’s a notch or two beneath it. But don’t get me wrong. This film is still one hilarious, demented trip.

There is speculation as to whether or not “ED2” is really a sequel or just a remake of the first one. Ash (Bruce Campbell) is at the same cabin, and he loses his girlfriend Linda to the evil curse that was unleashed by playing the tape of the Necronomicon scripture, turning her into another walking corpse. We see what might be a continuation of “Evil Dead’s” final shot of the camera swooping in on Ash the morning after the carnage. But the sequel/remake quandary falls by the wayside. All that matters is that Ash is trapped in this house, and he has to hold out until sunrise, which can keep the curse at bay.

Meanwhile, Anna Knowby (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the professor who found the book and made the recordings, is on her way to the cabin to find out what happened to her father, and along the way she runs into Jake (Dan Hicks), a local truck driver, and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), a local…they never really say, she’s just a moron. They end up going to the cabin with Anna to take part in the mayhem.

These two threads represent what is great and what is underwhelming about “Evil Dead 2.” What does work: Bruce Campbell as Ash. Ash gets more to do in this movie, and Campbell amps up the bug-eyed intensity that is uniquely his to the extreme. The scene early in the film where the curse takes possession of his hand is a flat-out marvel. Campbell puts on an astonishing display of physical comedy on par with Chaplin or Keaton. It’s the most perfect crystallization yet of Raimi’s melding of blood-soaked horror and “Three Stooges” comedy.

The bigger budget has unleashed Raimi as a director. The blood is literally shooting out of the walls, the special effects are dramatically improved (even though they haven’t aged particularly well), and the camerawork is more out-of-control than ever, with Steadicam shots moving at 100 mph and seemingly impossible angle shots. This is reckless imagination completely unfiltered.

But when the movie moves away from Ash and the madness and focuses on the other characters, the middle part of the film becomes a chore to watch. The three new characters and the actors who play them are pretty horrendous. The bad acting wasn’t a problem in the first movie, since it added to the crude, student-film atmosphere. But “Evil Dead 2,” for whatever reason, the bad acting sticks out even more, especially with Berry as Anna. The relationship they try to set up with her and Ash falls completely flat. Emotional cores are of little interest to Raimi and his co-writer Scott Spiegel. They want to keep the grungy, fly-by-night spirit of the first movie while making everything bigger and on a larger canvas. Those two things don’t always mesh, and all the cartoonish violence threatens to reach the tipping point. It doesn’t build suspense, everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown at you throughout the 84-minute run time. All the insanity may be exhausting to some.

Despite these flaws, Raimi and Campbell make a pretty wild team. It’s great to watch Ash transform from a scared hardware salesmen into a chainsaw-and-shotgun wielding badass. The dismemberment, monstrous transformations and even time travel collide in the film’s climax. “Evil Dead 2” doesn’t have the element of surprise that the first film had, this is still a wild ride. A filmmaker with lunatic sensibilities and an actor willing to follow are still, in Ash’s words, pretty “groovy.”

Grade: B+

Rise of the Film-Geek Fascists

This is getting stupid.

Not sad, not alarming (okay, maybe a little bit), but really fucking stupid.

What I’m referring to is this: sources say The Dark Knight Rises opens on Friday. There is a bottomless conclave of hype surrounding it, including how critics will react to it. A small screening was met with a standing ovation and some very ecstatic tweets last week, so everyone expected every film critic to fall in love with it and bow at the alter of Christopher Nolan like they did with The Dark Knight, four years ago. For the most part, that has happened. As of Monday night, the movie currently sits at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and several critics were genuinely blown away by it. But even the most positive reviewers pointed out flaws with the film, and a couple of critics, most notably Marshall Fine of Hollywood and Fine and Christy Lemire of the Associated Press, dared to give TDKR (gasp) negative reviews. Of course, you would expect Internet commenters, most specifically the ones who frequent Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, to accept the dissenting opinions and move on with their lives right?

Sure; if we were dealing with responsible, coherent adults. Instead, this legion of fanboys and trolls lost their minds over the fact that people would dare not bow down to the obvious awesomeness of The Dark Knight Rises. Does it matter that they haven’t seen it? Of course not! Some people feel it is necessary to throw basic cinematic analysis and accept the potential greatness of a major film, such as Dark Knight Rises, as a forgone conclusion, that its quality is sacrosanct and any heretical critics who have issues with it must be taken down in as many public forums as possible. Here are some of the measured, logical responses to the reviews posted by Fine and Lemire:

“[Lemire] is biased and ignorant. She only gives high scores to movies she likes.”

“[Lemire]  gives amazing spiderrman,savages,snow white,ted and other worse things fresh review but mocks dark knight rises..she is not geniune guys..she is a fame seeker who wants attention. I bet she is a bigger letdown in her real life then she thinks dark knight rises is..”

“I knew there’d be a contrarian troll or hipster [Fine] somewhere to taint the film’s perfect 100% fresh rating.”

“Fine needs to kill himself.”

These are actually some of the nicest comments. Fine and Lemire have both received death threats, and the fact that Lemire is a woman has created an even more horrifying, sexist fervor. Posts on IMDb have called her “unstable,” with liberal use of the C-word (which is not “cuckold”), and telling her to get back in the kitchen because women know nothing about movies, especially if they are comic book adaptations.

This behavior isn’t new, unfortunately. Similar remarks were made against critics who panned “The Avengers,” among numerous other high-profile films over the past five years or so. It goes without saying that this behavior is appalling. But the question is: why does it happen? Why have IMDb members become fanatical monsters who go on personal, vitriolic vendettas against anyone who likes different movies than they do?

I think one reason may be the widening of how much movies are covered in online news. This effect is twofold.  Every single piece of information released in connection to a major movie, The Dark Knight Rises especially, is treated as an event. We are bombarded with trailers, casting updates, production notes, concept art, pictures from the set, etc. We have all the information anyone could want without actually seeing the movie at our fingertips. I think, as a result, fans become more immersed in the movies they are excited for. They have so much information that they think they can develop a concrete opinion on whether a movie is good or not just by reading everything around it. It’s like judging the quality of a meal by looking at the recipe card.

The advent of countless open forums, such as IMDb, Facebook, and Twitter, has given people the opportunity to voice their opinions, positively or negatively, anywhere they want. As a result, people meet up with other people who feel the same way about movies that they do. If they are made by an established filmmaker, like Christopher Nolan, it is intensified. People who love movies directed by Nolan, Scorsese, Fincher, etc., amass in these spaces, and this overload of chatter creates a deification of directors. The legion behind Nolan is probably the largest. Look through the IMDb boards on any of his films and you can see countless boards filled with hateful comments condemning anyone who says anything that is contrary to the deluted mythos that has been established around him. Don’t like “Inception?” You’re an imbecile who couldn’t handle the mindfuck brilliance of Nolan’s vision. Think “Batman Begins” is better than Dark Knight? Not only are you an idiot, you’re an idiot who should spend any and all free time fucking his mother. In a way, online movie geeks, like the ones who attacked Lemire and Fine, have become movie fascists: any and all dissenting opinions will be met with hostility, name-calling, and the desire to not see that critic alive anymore.

To clarify, I’m not condeming the Internet for this trend. I love the Internet; there is no Aaron Sorkin finger-wagging here. I am condemning these trolls and hatemongers for ruining and having an appalling misunderstanding of one thing I’ve loved about movies my whole life: criticism and discussion (okay, that’s two things, whatever). Even worse than hateful comments, one hilarious trick people like to pull out is looking at how the critics at hand felt about other movies, and condemn them for liking movies that they don’t. For example, the fact that Lemire liked “Magic Mike” shows that she has no taste, and she is willing to give a film a higher grade because, since she is a woman, she must’ve only liked it because it featured scantily-clad men. People need to understand there are no rule saying if you like certain movies, you must dislike other movies. If a lot of people have a negative or positive opinion on a specific film, it still isn’t a fact, it is always, by definition, a shared opinion. Movies, like all forms of art, are subjective, and everyone is going to have a different reaction to them. For example, I hate “Gone With the Wind.” I really hate it. But a lot of people think it’s a masterpiece and that is perfectly fine. It’s  the fascism popping up again. Nobody is going to tremble at you calling out Lemire or Fine for liking “Ted” when you hated it, or worse, calling them trolls for Marvel Comics because they preferred The Avengers.

The lack of etiquette and proper discourse is also quite harmful. There is nothing better than listening to someone giving a detailed and fair defense or condemnation of a film, and then arguing with someone who disagrees. I spent my first three years at SUNY Oswego digging through the old archives on the At The Movies website. Watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and later Lemire herself and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky get into it over the merits, or lack their of, of a movie like “The Silence of the Lambs” or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialisme.” It was great because there was actual knowledge behind the opinions, not just blind adulation of the creators of the work. It changed how I review, write about, and analyze movies for the better. I’m 23 years old, and I’m actually saddened by the fact that my generation is responsible for this dumbfounded view of movies.

Also, it is affecting my own excitement for The Dark Knight Rises. I honestly can’t remember being more excited for a movie in my lifetime. I love Christopher Nolan’s films, from the low-fi narrative shuffle of “Following” and “Memento” up to the dreamscape/heist delirium that was “Inception.” I feel like my love of his work is tainted by these people who want critics to die out of some twisted devotion to the works of Mr. Nolan. He is a great director, he isn’t God. People tend to forget that.

But perhaps the best plan of action is, to quote Bruce Springsteen, sit back easy and laugh, at the morons who don’t have a grasp of what loving movies is all about. I have to wait an extra week to see TDKR, and I hope it really is a great film. But that doesn’t invalidate what people who don’t like it have to say. It would be a boring world if everybody had the same opinion about every film. Art is suppose to get a rise, good or bad, out of the viewer. If we forget that basic fact, we forget the purpose of movies in the first place. Especially if it involves a movie that NONE OF THEM HAVE EVEN SEEN YET. If you want to act like a spoiled child on the Internet, go ahead, its your loss. Myself and countless others will be acting like the adults.

Revisiting Titanic

This week’s post is going to be difficult because I just got out of “Cabin in the Woods,” and I’m still picking up pieces of my brain from the floor of the theater.

Anyway, (seriously, don’t read this blog, go see “Cabin in the Woods” and come back later) with the re-release of Titanic in 3D, I thought I would share my thoughts on this movie, and how people can turn on movies just for being insanely popular.

“Titanic” was the first non-kids movie I ever saw in the theater. I saw it with my Mom when I was 9. The most memorable thing about seeing it then was my mom desperately trying to cover my eyes during the Kate Winslet portrait scene, and how blown away I was by the movie’s sheer spectacle.

So here’s the question: is “Titanic” good? Overall, yes. Contrary to the IMDb boards, this isn’t the worst movie ever made. Far from it. This film’s strengths and weaknesses can easily be split into two halves: James Cameron the writer, and James Cameron the director.

I’m not bothering with a plot synopsis, since everyone has seen this movie: Titanic sets sail, two people fall in love, boat sinks, Leo dies. That’s pretty much it. Since this movie took over the world in 1997, its become a bit of a punching bag among people who don’t want to admit they liked this movie because it’s a “chick flick.” But, more on that later. I saw this movie on HBO again 2 summers ago, so it’s pros and cons are still fairly fresh in my mind.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work: the script. Here’s where I stand with Mr. Cameron: James Cameron the filmmaker is a genius. James Cameron the writer, however, is a fucking hack (you know who isn’t a hack? Joss Whedon, who co-wrote “Cabin in the Woods,” which you should see). The central love story between Jack (Leo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is really broadly written. All the 1st class passengers, where Rose is, are rich snobs, and everyone in 3rd class where Jack is are impoverished and lovable. Some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing (“I’m flying, Jack!”) and too contemporary. Jack talks like someone from 1997, not 1912. And then there is the Cal problem. Cal, played by Billy Zane, is Rose’s fiance, and is an over-the-top douchebag. William Goldman, one of the greatest screenwriters who ever lived, has a great essay where he calls Cal the most useless character in movie history. He’s probably right. He exists only to be a jerk, his character has no arc whatsoever. It doesn’t help that Zane is hilariously over-the-top in his performance. The scene where he flips out on Rose and flips the table (not on YouTube)  is more funny than menacing.

But the weaknesses in the script are helped by two things: the acting and the structural clarity. With clarity, what I mean is that Cameron is a very fluid, if problematic, storyteller. His movies never become incoherent. We always know who the characters are and what is happening with them, even when the boat starts sinking. That may sound like a minor point, but in movies these days, especially action movies, directors don’t care about that, they just want more explosions and camera tricks (see Bay, Michael). Another thing that helps is that DiCaprio and Winslet are fantastic together. They transcend the crudeness of the writing with vivid, impassioned performances; you really believe these two are in love. DiCaprio hasn’t been as relaxed or charismatic in any movie since, and Winslet finds the steel-willed woman buried underneath Rose’s constricted exterior.

With these flaws, why is Titanic still a good movie? Easy: the second half. All of the bad dialogue and melodrama goes away once the iceberg hits the boat. The second half of Titanic is the greatest disaster movie ever made by far, and has some of the greatest filmmaking ever done. Period. Watching the Titanic sink is an amazing sight, and Cameron’s wizardry with combining practical sets and CGI is amazing. This is a greater achievement than “Avatar” I think, since so much of Titanic is done with mechanical effects. Titanic didn’t deserve Best Picture at the Oscars that year, but Cameron absolutely deserved to win Best Director.

I think the reason people rip this movie so much is because of its popularity; this happens with every piece of pop-culture, especially movies. I actually like it when things I like become popular; great art is best when experienced and discussed with others. I might write an entire post someday about this issue, but in Titanic’s case, it just really annoys me. There is nothing wrong with enjoying this movie (or Cabin in the Woods, which you should see).

So overall, Titanic is a mediocre, but well-acted, movie for the first 90 minutes and an absolute masterpiece for the last 90 minutes. Except for that nightmare of a Celine Dion song. That really is awful. Go see Cabin in the Woods.

Personal Pantheon: The Insider – 1999

“The greater the truth, the greater the damage.”

We’ve been told our entire lives that we should always tell the truth, that it can “set us free,” and that honesty is always the best policy. But in some instances, this turns out to be a major falsehood. Telling the truth can have major repercussions that can alienate you from your surroundings and or career, and the effects of your honesty can effect more people than you originally imagined. In journalism, this happens all the time.  “The Insider,” directed by Michael Mann, is a riveting example of this.

At first glance, “The Insider” is about the evils of the tobacco industry and the crusade of a single whistleblower, but is is so much more than that. It is an examination of both the tobacco industry and the realistic goals and limitations of broadcast journalism, and it achieves both of those objectives thanks to incredible filmmaking and some brilliant performances.

The film, which takes place in the mid-1990’s, tells the story of  Jeffery Wigand (Russell Crowe) who is the corporate vice president of the Brown and Williamson tobacco company, who at the film’s start is told that he has been fired. He has a wife and two daughters, one of whom has asthma, so Wigand needs to have medical insurance. The company knows this, so they make Wigand sign a confidentiality agreement that says his family will lose severance and insurance if he gives anyone inside information on the countless lies spread by Big Tobacco. Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), the producer of CBS’ “60 Minutes,” is doing a story on cigarettes and fire safety and seeks out Wigand as a consultant on the story. Wigand tells Bergman his story, and Bergman in turn encourages him to blow the whistle on Brown and Williamson and do an interview on “60 Minutes.” Wigand refuses, but when he starts receiving death threats, he decides he can’t take it anymore and seizes the opportunity to expose the lies Big Tobacco has been telling about cigarettes and their addictive qualities. He sits down for an interview with the legendary Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer just crushes this role), but the fallout of this interview will affect the lives of everyone involved in drastic ways.

What I love about this movie is that it explores how being a whistleblower can destroy your life, and it it also a devastating critique of the state of modern journalism. This movie would be a great double feature with “Good Night and Good Luck.” This movie works on two fronts. We see how Wigand’s life completely falls apart after he loses his job. His wife attacks him for putting this interview ahead of his family’s needs and eventually leaves him, and Wigand, who has a history of emotional and anger problems, can’t handle the media analyzing every aspect of his life and blowing up every minute detail in order to discredit his allegations against Brown and Williamson.  This film is brave because it does not paint Wigand as a hero. He is even unlikable at times, letting his emotions cloud his judgment. This is a complicated role to tackle, but thankfully, this movie has Russell Crowe. In one of the most devastating, implosive and unforgettable performances ever captured on film, Crowe disappears into this character, and gives him so many facets that it takes several viewings to take in everything he tries to do with this character. The fact that Crowe didn’t win the Oscar for this movie is a travesty.

The film’s other track follows CBS’ reaction to the Wigand interview. CBS’ lawyers find out that since Wigand’s interview violates his confidentiality agreement, Brown and Williamson could sue CBS for billions of dollars, since they technically own the information he revealed. As a result, CBS orders Bergman to cut an alternate interview without the controversial information. In a shocking act of journalistic cowardice, the other producers comply, to Bergman’s shock and outrage. Pacino has been maligned over the years for going to over-the-top in many of his performances, but when he scales back and focuses on playing a character, he is still as good as he ever was. This is one of his most underrated performances, investing Bergman with righteous idealism and an iron-will to getting the tough stories told. “The Insider” offers a painfully real presentation of modern journalism: corporate interests outweigh journalistic ones every time. The days of “All The President’s Men” and journalists as American heroes are long gone. The entire film and its themes of compromise and the ends justifying the means can be summed up in this scene, where Bergman tells off his co-workers for throwing journalistic integrity under the bus, is one of my all-time favorites, and Pacino is incredible in it.

All of this could’ve been a bore that would only entertain insiders in the industry, but Michael Mann, known for his epic, brooding and violent crime epics like “Heat” and “Manhunter,” restrains from his usual stylistic fireworks and keeps a steady hand making all of this information into a tense, exciting thriller. Even at 158 minutes, this movie doesn’t drag for a second thanks to the excitement of the performances and the great script Mann co-wrote with Eric Roth.

While “The Insider” does deal a lot with the business aspects of tobacco and broadcast journalism, it tells a universal truth, that truth should never be compromised, no matter what the consequences might be. “What was broken here, can never be put back together,” Bergman tells Mike Wallace at the end of the movie, referring to the years of trust and integrity 60 Minutes built up. “The Insider” tells the story of a free press that can only be shackled by itself.