25 Year Later: “Titanic” (1997)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

It still remember seeing “Titanic” 25 years ago. Despite being directed by the same guy who did such “manly” movies as “The Terminator”, “Aliens”, and “True Lies”, I remember dismissing “Titanic” as little more that a cornball romance set aboard the ill-fated British passenger liner. Well, it kinda is that.

But it was also a James Cameron movie meaning it would be an enormous blockbuster spectacle unlike anything done before. Sporting a whopping $200 million production budget, “Titanic” was easily the most expensive at the time. It became the first film ever to reach $1 billion at the box office and remained the highest grossing film of all-time until it was passed by 2019’s “Avatar”, yet another Cameron extravaganza.

“Titanic” truly is two movies fused into one – a sudsy love story and an epic disaster film. In addition to directing, producing, and editing, Cameron wrote the script, incorporating numerous historical details into his story. He also included several real-life characters including “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), the vessel’s architect and shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Victor Gerber), Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill), and the ship’s bandmaster Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones), among several others.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

But at its core “Titanic” is a fictional love story anchored by its two young stars. In 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, both barely over 20-years-old at the time of their casting, had already gained notoriety and each had already earned Academy Award nominations for supporting roles, him for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and her for “Sense and Sensibility”. But “Titanic” catapulted them both into Hollywood stardom (Winslet’s performance earned her a second Oscar nomination).

While Winslet’s Rose DeWitt Bukater and DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson were purely fictional, several things about their characters and circumstances were rooted in reality. Cameron gave a lot of attention to the class distinctions between the two leads. Jack was a poor aspiring artist who won his third-class ticket on the Titanic in a poker game. Rose was the upper-class fiancé to an older and wealthy heir (played by Billy Zane), a relationship encouraged by her widowed mother (Frances Fisher) who was desperate to maintain her high-end social status.

For Cameron, realistically portraying the Titanic was vital, and he felt a great responsibility to get it right. He poured a lot of time, effort, and budget into researching and recreating the Titanic’s interiors and exterior. The ship was reconstructed to full scale, and Cameron, along with his production designer Peter Lamont, followed archived blueprints and old photographs to capture the liner’s luxurious original designs. The meticulous attention to detail is as remarkable as it is impressive, and understanding what all went into accurately representing the Titanic really enhances the experience.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Meanwhile Winslet and DiCaprio fleshed out what would become one of cinema’s most well-known tragic love stories. Rose and Jack’s tale of forbidden love has its share of mushy moments. But Cameron never pushes it too far, and there is lots of compelling dressing surrounding their romance in the form of interesting characters, side stories, and themes. The good casting doesn’t hurt either, starting with Winslet and DiCaprio. And I can’t say enough about the often underappreciated Billy Zane. He’s a bit of a mustache-twirling cartoon (minus the mustache) which is one reason I like him so much. He’s possessive, conceited, and snobbish and Zane hits every single vile or despicable mark.

Then of course you have the second half which combines powerful emotional beats with pure moviemaking extravagance. As the film shifts to disaster movie mode, we again see Cameron pushing the boundaries of special effects. Much like with “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” and “The Abyss”, he once again took digital technology in some groundbreaking new directions. But just as impressive are the incredible practical effects that included elaborate miniatures, a 5,000,000 gallon water tank, and some extraordinary set design. And all of it to create the most realistic rendering of the Titanic disaster ever put on screen.

“Titanic” would go on to earn 14 Academy Award nominations, winning eleven including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron. To its credit the movie has stood the proverbial test of time. I still find the central romance a bit too syrupy at times, but it’s hard not to be moved by where it goes. And you can say what you want about James Cameron, but he makes movies that people want to go see. Whether they’re about a blue-skinned indigenous tribe on a faraway planet or a love story set aboard a doomed luxury liner in 1912.


REVIEW: “Thunivu” (2023)

The new Tamil-language film “Thunivu” is a lot of things packed into one movie. It’s loaded with kinetic action, there’s plenty of good humor, and (of course) there’s the occasional pulse-pounding musical number (often when you’re least expecting it). But more than anything, “Thunivu” is a heist film. It may be impossible to nail it down into one single category, but the heist genre is clearly baked into the movie’s DNA.

Written and directed by H. Vinoth, “Thunivu” surprises by seeking to be both a searing indictment of financial systems and institutions and unabashed big screen entertainment. Each are (mostly) effective, and Vinoth does a good job conveying both thrills and his message. Where the movie struggles is in weaving both aspects together. Suffice it say we’re left with what feels like a film of two very different halves.

“Thunivu” stars Ajith Kumar, a fascinating and electric lead who oozes charisma from his first scene till his last. The prolific actor and race car driver has appeared in over 60 movies throughout his remarkable 33-year career. Here he’s handed a meaty role that leans into his physicality, sly sense of humor, and overflowing swagger. He gives a fun (and at times delightfully over-the-top) performance that’s as playful as it is intense.

Vinoth wastes no time setting up and kicking off his elaborate story. The film opens with a gangster named Radha (Veera) meticulously laying out his plan to rob the privately owned “Your Bank” in the heart of Chennai. Within minutes he and his heavily armed crew storm the bank, taking out the guards and rounding up their hostages. But as they prepare to cash out, their plan is disrupted by a mysterious white-bearded man (Kumar) who takes out Radha’s men in a gloriously ballet of finely choreographed violence.

But this mystery man is no angel. He’s actually a gangster himself known as Dark Devil, and he has targeted the bank for his own well-hidden purposes. The police quickly gather outside led by their determined commissioner (Samuthirakani). Soon the tactical units arrives, a war room is set up, and snipers are placed on the rooftops. But with the help of his partner on the outside Kanmani (Manju Warrier), who is observing and feeding him information from a distance, the morally ambiguous Dark Devil stays one step ahead of everyone, including the audience.

As the high-energy, furiously paced first half steams forward, Vinoth introduces several more characters to help fill out his story. There’s a timid constable (Mahanadi Shankar), a cut-throat journalist (Mohanan Sundaram), a sleazy inspector (Bagavathi Perumal), and a crooked banker (John Kokken) just to name a few. Yet there’s never a doubt that Kumar is the centerpiece, and his Dark Devil drives the adrenaline-fueled, action-packed first 100 minutes.

But then the movie takes a surprising turn. The action is somewhat dialed down as Vinoth hits us with a slew of reveals, many through some rather lengthy flashbacks. It’s a bold but jarring change of pace that sees Dark Devil go from ruthless gangster to a roguish Robin Hood of sorts. Soon we’re talking about bank scams, mutual funds, and credit card debt. And suddenly the villains aren’t just gangsters. They’re also bankers, policemen, politicians, and the news media. In Vinoth’s story everyone has dirty hands.

The shift from full-throttled action to biting commentary isn’t the most graceful transition. But it’s hard not to appreciate the shots Vinoth takes at the various forms of corruption, especially from the financial sector. As far as other gripes, Nirav Shah’s cinematography is spectacular. But there are a handful of clips that are awkwardly sped up to the point of being distracting. And while Ghibran’s relentless score fits the movie, it can be a bit overpowering. I also wanted more of Manju Warrier. She’s a tough and fiery presence, but I wish she was given more to do.

But in the end those are small quibbles, especially for a movie that packs this much fun. “Thunivu” may not hit every mark, but I love it when a filmmaker takes big swings. Vinoth goes for broke, delivering a densely plotted, old-school heist movie that’s bursting with a fresh style and energy. He feeds a full course to those hungry for big action, and rewards those who patiently wait for his story to unfold. By the end there’s a good chance you’ll still have a few questions. I know I did. But for the most part Vinoth does a good job covering all his ground. The magnetic Ajith Kumar handles the rest. He’s a force of nature who commands the screen whether he’s cracking bones or cracking jokes. It’s just the kind of star power “Thunivu” needs.


REVIEW: “Troll” (2022)

Director Roar Uthaug take us on a ridiculously fun ride with “Troll”, his Norwegian monster flick that plucks inspiration from countless creature features and disaster movies. What we get is a cool action-packed spectacle full of crazy set-pieces and top-notch special effects. And while its story has some good build-up, it has the sense to know not to take things too seriously, which makes it more of a rip-roaring hoot than a dark and dour downer.

While it looks amazing (as good if not better than anything from US studios not named “Top Gun: Maverick” or “Avatar: The Way of Water”), Uthaug’s unashamed pastiche doesn’t shirk on the tension-building. And despite how familiar things feel, “Troll” has its share of surprises, starting with its titular creature plucked right out of Scandinavian folklore. And while most of the characters all fit a particular model, it’s easy to overlook thanks to the solid performances and some fun energy between them.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

While blasting a tunnel through a mountain in Dovre, a construction crew inadvertently awakens a creature laying dormant deep within. The creature, a massive stone Troll, bursts out, killing those who have interrupted its sleep. After live video captured by protesters reaches the Norwegian government, Prime Minister Berit Moberg (Anneke von der Lippe) organizes the military and calls in a team of experts to help figure out a course of action.

One of those experts is Nora Tidemann (Ine Marie Wilmann), a paleontologist overseeing a dig along the Atlantic coast in northwestern Norway. Nora knows the area well and was taught the mythology of the mountains, aka The Troll Peaks, by her estranged father Tobias (Gard B. Eidsvold). He believed firmly in the existence of trolls but was discredited and shamed by others in the science community. Ultimately Nora couldn’t get behind her father’s theories leading to them going their separate ways.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

In Oslo most of the “experts” are quick to blame the incident on a pocket of methane. But Nora is quicker to recognize the obvious – a beast the size of a tall building has been let loose and is heading towards the capitol city. After a second incident, the Prime Minister orders the evacuation of Oslo and tasks Nora with investigating deeper, in hopes she can find a way to stop the troll. With the help of Captain Kris Holm (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) and Moberg’s chief advisor Andreas Isaksan (Kim Falck), Nora sets out to find the only person who may have the answers they need – her father.

“Troll” features a terrific blend of fantasy and modern day while also tapping into the the old-school entertainment of classic monster movies. And while the story might not win any awards for originality, its chock full of cultural references including King Kong, Star Trek, and Call of Duty. They may not add a ton overall, but they’re fun to pick out. That often dismissed and maligned word “fun” defines “Troll” in a nutshell. It’s an eye-popping genre flick that delivers exactly what you expect from it. Nothing more; nothing less. That turned out to be all I needed to have a good time. “Troll” is now streaming on Netflix.


REVIEW: “Tár” (2022)

Cate Blanchett cements her next Oscar nomination (and quite possible a win) with “Tár”, the latest film from writer-director Todd Field. It’s Field’s first time behind the camera since 2006’s “Little Children”, and he has once again put together a movie that’s getting a lot of awards season buzz. His story follows a fictional conductor and composer named Lydia Tár who’s at the height of her career. But when accusations of misconduct arise, she watches as her life of success and renown begins to unravel.

Blanchett plays Lydia Tár with a fierce confidence that bleeds over into the character. It can be quiet and subtle, or it can be unbridled and consuming. It’s that very confidence that makes Lydia such a fascinating, complicated, and at times loathsome character. It’s a trait that has made her one of the greatest living composers. It has led her to become the Berlin Philharmonic’s first female chief conductor. It’s put her in place to lead the upcoming live performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It has even enabled her to publish her own biography.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

But we watch as that same confidence that has afforded Lydia so many opportunities crushes the people who dare to get close to her. It’s seen through a collection of relationships she has, mostly business but occasionally personal. They include people such as her diligent assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), her concertmaster and significant other Sharon (Nina Hoss), her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), the manager of her fellowship program Eliot (Mark Strong), and a young Russian cellist named Olga (Sophie Kauer).

Field uses these relationships for much of the film’s near 160 minute runtime to try and give us a full picture of Lydia Tár. As a character study it mostly works although it does leave some of the supporting players doing little more than servicing Lydia and her story. It’s a shame because the film sports a compelling cast. But rather than building on them, we get several showy, pretension-soaked scenes that can be a lot of fun, but would be even better if Field would have pushed his story a little more off the rails.

But the film’s self-seriousness eventually gets Field into trouble, especially as he breezes by the heavier subject matter (allegations of inappropriate conduct, sexual harassment, suicide, etc.). None of them gets the attention they need. He also skirts around what seems like important details – the accusations themselves, the backlash, the legal hearings, the consequences.

All of that is exacerbated by some frustrating pacing decisions. The first two hours (plus some) of the film moves at such a patient (and at times borderline lethargic) pace. It can be slow yet it’s often observant. But then in the final 30 minutes it’s as if Field checked his watch and said “We need to wrap this up.” He frantically jumps from place to place as he shows Lydia’s house crumbling down on her. It’s an intentional choice that simply doesn’t have the desired effect. Ultimately it leaves the ending feeling terribly rushed and woefully unsatisfying.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Whether Lydia is conducting in Berlin or teaching at Julliard, Blanchett munches her scenes with a conviction that’s hard to turn away from. At the same time, in many of these very same scenes you can see the movie working hard to earn its prestige status. Take the film’s opening, Lydia’s ego-stroking interview with The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik. It’s an compelling scene, but I found myself more interested in watching what Blanchett was doing than getting an introduction to Lydia Tár. It’s not her fault. It’s just that the scene (like several others) exudes a vanity that almost rivals that of the main character.

“Tár” has a lot to admire even if it doesn’t all coalesce into something truly satisfying. And while it attempts to tackle some pretty hefty issues, its story blurs too many details which does more to obscure any truth than actually reckon with it. So much so that I found it hard to get a grasp the movie’s convictions. For some, Blanchett’s domineering performance will be enough to cover any flaws or at least divert attention away from them. Me, I’m stuck on the fence, appreciating the things that fit with what I hoped the movie would be, and a little frustrated with how things ultimately turned out.


REVIEW: “Till” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The story of Emmit Till is unsettling, unspeakable, and infuriating. Yet out of such a cold-hearted and hate-driven crime came another story – one of unimaginable courage. And while the story of Emmit Till, his murder, and the travesty of justice that followed inescapably brings feelings of heartache and indignation, the story of his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley is one full of inspiration and power.

It was the summer of 1955. Emmit Louis Till was only 14-years-old when he hopped on a train in Chicago bound for Mississippi. There he was to spend a couple of weeks visiting family. A few days into his visit, he and his cousins entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy candy. While inside Emmit, an African-America boy, had an encounter with Carolyn Bryant, the white co-owner of the store. What exactly took place in the store is still disputed, but what followed isn’t. On August 28, 1955 young Emmit Till was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Dramatizing stories like this in movie-form is always tricky. But rather than honing in on the barbaric killing of Emmit Till (and risk unintentionally exploiting it in the process), director Chinonye Chukwu puts her focus on Mamie Till-Bradley. Told mostly from Mamie’s perspective, “Till” spares us the visual horror of Emmit’s murder, but the pain of his death is felt in every single frame and in the emotionally raw and revelatory performance of Danielle Deadwyler whose name should be on every awards season ballot. She invigorates the role of Mamie who makes the agonizing journey from shattered mother to civil rights crusader.

“Till” features much of the same precision seen in Chukwu’s 2019 debut film, the terrific yet woefully underseen “Clemency”. This is a considerably bigger undertaking both in terms of size and scope. But Chukwu manages it well, showing off keen instincts both technically and narratively. The production design and costumes are top-notch, as is her control of the camera, from framing a shot to knowing when to keep it still. Most importantly, Chukwu and her co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp maintain a grounded and crushingly authentic approach to storytelling.

Emmit is played by Jalyn Hall whose big smile and outgoing personality can light up a room. He’s shown to be sweet, full of life, and the apple of his mother’s eye. When we first meet him he’s bubbling with excitement over visiting his cousins down South. But Mamie is uncomfortable with letting her son leave Chicago. She knows the dangers that may await a young boy of color in the Mississippi Delta, warning him, “Be small down there.” Yet despite her visible concern (aka mother’s intuition), Mamie puts her beloved son on the train with his uncle known as Preacher (John Douglas Thompson). Little did she know, that was the last time she would see her son alive.

For African-Americans in the Jim Crowe-era South, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble for simply looking at a white person the wrong way. As the well-meaning and naturally friendly Emmit enters Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, Chukwu ensures we sense the weight of what’s about to happen. And as Emmit has his ill-fated exchange with Carolyn Bryant (played by Haley Bennett), Chukwu turns up the tension. It’s palpable, from the time he leaves the store until a few days later, when Carolyn’s husband Roy (Sean Michael Weber) and his pack of goons kidnap Emmit in the dead of the night, savagely beating him beyond recognition, and then killing him. Chukwu’s handling of these scenes are masterful – showing you don’t always have submit your audience to brutality in order for them to feel it’s affects.

Image Courtesy of United Artists Releasing

Back in Chicago, Mamie gets word of Emmit’s kidnapping and is directed to Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll) who uses his connections to get the NAACP involved. But then comes word of Emmit’s fate, and Mamie is left devastated. Rayfield encourages her to speak out and utilize the public’s attention, but Mamie has no interest. She just wants Emmit’s body brought home. But then she sees his brutalized remains and makes a bold decision. Mamie has an open-casket public wake, determined that people actually see what happened to her son. This launches her campaign for justice which leads to a Mississippi court where her son’s killers are put on trial. “There is no testimony like a mother’s.”

Interestingly, “Till” does stumble on a few of the real-life details. Most are small, such as Emmit’s stutter which pops up in one lone scene then suddenly vanishes. Others are puzzling, like the sanitizing of Emmit’s father and his troubling backstory. But they’re hardly deal-breakers, especially in a movie that speaks with such honesty and clarity. Add to it some of the very best ensemble work of the year, impeccable 1950s period design, and storytelling that’s every bit as heart-wrenching as it needs to be. “Till” is out now in theaters October 28th”.


REVIEW: “Ticket to Paradise” (2022)

Aside from its half-fun and half-cringey trailer, “Ticket to Paradise” advertised a potentially fun throwback romantic comedy built on the backs of two Hollywood A-listers. For some of us, it’s hard not to be drawn to the prospect of George Clooney and Julia Roberts hamming it up again on the big screen. And considering both have dialed back their workload in recent years, it’s nice seeing them again even if this is a pretty by-the-numbers romcom.

Built on Clooney’s charm, Roberts’ effervescence, and their effortlessly fun chemistry together, “Ticket to Paradise” (from director Ol Parker) is the kind of movie that calls back to decades ago when mega-stars frequently took these gigs, often between bigger and better projects. The movies were always light and frothy and they stuck to a pretty strict formula. Eventually these movies ran their course and were even looked down upon as tastes went a little more highbrow.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Don’t get me wrong. Like many other people, I too grew tired of these uninspired studio products and haven’t exactly been longing for their return. That said, I did feel a slight tingle of nostalgia when “Ticket to Paradise” was announced. I like Clooney and Roberts and seeing them together in one of these romcom concoctions of yesteryear wasn’t the worst thing in the world. And for me personally, sometimes I enjoy stepping away from the heavier stuff and taking in something like this.

Well, I can honestly say that “Ticket to Paradise” didn’t disappoint. Not because it’s something extraordinary, but because it’s exactly the kind of movie you think it is. It’s strongly beholden to the well-known romantic comedy formula, both in its handling of characters and in its storytelling. And it’s a movie where you know exactly how things are going to play out. Nothing will catch you by surprise. You’ll have figured out the ending before the opening credits have finished. But that will hardly bother the audience the film is aiming for.

Clooney plays a Chicago architect named David Cotton. Roberts plays a Los Angeles art dealer named Georgia. The two have been divorced for five years, and in this case time has not healed their wounds. It’s safe to say David and Georgia detest each other. Each blame the other for their split. Each relish the opportunity to degrade their former spouse. Together they’re an undeniably toxic recipe, but Clooney and Roberts, along with co-writers Parker and Daniel Pipski, offer up some pretty hilarious verbal jabs, needles, and takedowns, with both stars playing off each other extremely well.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The lone bit of joy David and Georgia share is their daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) who takes a trip to Bali with her best friend, Wren (Billie Lourd) to celebrate their recent graduation from law school. While there, Lily meets and falls in love with a local seaweed farmer named Gede (Maxime Bouttier). Only 37 days later, David and Georgia get emails from Lily informing them that she and Gede are engaged. Convinced Lily is throwing her life away, David and Georgia hop a plane for Bali, reluctantly join forces, and hatch a plan to discourage their daughter from getting hitched. Hijinks ensue.

Parker soaks us in crystal blue waters and lush green forests (courtesy of Queensland, Australia) so we always have something pretty to look at. Meanwhile the story plays out like your typical crowdpleaser, hitting most of the notes and checking most of the boxes. The antics range from cute and amusing to facepalm worthy. But the sheer star wattage of Clooney and Roberts keep the movie afloat. Their individual presences mixed with their smile-inducing chemistry ensure that those going to see “Ticket to Paradise” leave with exactly what they came for. “Ticket to Paradise” is now showing in theaters.