My most surreal preview was in December, 1997. I sat alone in San Diego’s single-screen Cinema 21 in Mission Valley, surrounded by what seemed like 10,000 empty seats. The vast Titanic rolled over me, on its way to its fabled finish and a global gross of $1.8 billion. I recall thinking later that the movie should be revived on the centennial of the ship’s sinking — which comes this Sunday, April 15.
I’ll bet a billion that director James Cameron already had the idea in mind. Cynics will say that he is greedy, even after having a bigger hit, Avatar ($2.8 billion, though that reflects a decade’s inflation). But if Titanic proves much beyond Cameron’s acumen, it is that he is a sentimental man. He wants to show off his $18 million rehab, with added 3-D and “4K digital remastering,” but mostly he wants that grand ship to sail again (sadly, the Cinema 21 sank after Titanic, replaced by a coral reef of condos).
What was weak in 1997 remains weak: cardboard villains (Billy Zane and his servant, David Warner), the fake oil study for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Bill Paxton’s noxiously cute assistant (Lewis Abernathy) making dumb cracks, too much misty memory from dear old Rose (Gloria Stuart), some corny close-ups and creaky lines. I never quite bought the framing device about a gaudy jewel, and Kathy Bates presses her folksy gusto a little hard as Molly Brown (still, I’ll take her over Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown).
Those are all bubbles in the backwash. Titanic is a great boat show and a great star show. The dynamic staging of the doomed vessel is often exquisitely designed. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are splendid as the nautical Romeo and Juliet, Jack from steerage and first-class Rose. I invoke critic John Leonard’s comment about Norman Mailer’s work: “You either like this stuff or you don’t. I do.”
Cameron’s genius was not in the effects, which is why the new doodads are only extras. It was in finding the perfect young stars to install a heart into the ship, the romance, and the tragedy. Rose tops Jack’s “King of the world!” with her “I’m flying!” In one of the best foreplay scenes ever, he draws her in the nude (gutsy for Winslet at 22). The love scene that steams up a car, on the boat, was inspired.
There comes the stunning disaster, including the poignant instruction to the musicians: “Nice and cheeky, so there’s no panic.” Poor Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) is doomed. So are many. I skipped out, this time, on watching gallant Jack go under (inevitable, for romance must pay homage to tragedy).
Does 3-D help the film? Yes and no. It adds some pop-out, but the glasses slightly darken the images and, I think, slightly reduce the epic scale.
I plan to see the San Diego Museum of Natural History’s exhibit of Titanic artifacts. I won’t make it to their nearby “Titanic Centennial First Class Wine Dinner Package” at $212 per seat (will ice be served?). For now and years to come, the great ship and its myth belong to Cameron, DiCaprio, and Winslet.
The Kid with a Bike
It captures the time in a boy’s life when his bicycle is a companion and a ticket to freedom, but The Kid with a Bike is not sentimental. No surprise, for it is from the brilliant Belgians, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. Again their theme is youth and family life in peril. Again we are pulled into their lucidly beautiful, often hand-held shots.
Thomas Doret is excellent as Cyril, 11, abandoned by his single father to a state home. He lucks into Samantha (Cécile De France), and the hairdresser becomes a virtual, then real foster mother. She is instinctively humane and willing to offend a boyfriend to help the child. But Cyril is a tough, wary, tricky, willful kid. His speedy legs, on and off the bike, are driven by a fierce, almost feral desire to join his father.
Dad, however, is shallow and selfish (actor Jérémie Renier was once the boy on a bike, in the Dardennes’s 1996 marvel La Promesse). And our hearts tense when Cyril draws the interest of a sly punk (Egon Di Mateo), a modernized Fagin. We realize how fast Cyril could fall and how close his bravery is to despair. The Dardennes know how to insert an adagio passage from Beethoven’s Emperor concerto and, raised Catholic, they know how to thread themes of charity and forgiveness.
For all its “found” realism, this is sophisticated work. Cyril’s red shirt echoes the lofty but vulnerable title element in The Red Balloon. But comparisons to movies (The 400 Blows, Oliver Twist, The Bicycle Thief, even Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) are less valuable than the urgent pressure of Cyril’s life, as the hinge of fate turns on the whirring chain of his beloved bike.
The ratings system finally awarded Bully a PG-13, after threatening an R because of some f-words, so now kids can see how the shy ones, the loners, the non-sports, the odd-lookers are made to suffer. Some school administrators in the movie are too worried about possible litigation to do much about anything. You know the alibis: kids will be kids, boys will be boys, sadistic boys will really be sadistic, so what can we do? Well, pay attention, help the victims, punish the bullies.
For me the hardest scene in Lee Hirsch’s documentary is a kid crying as he helps carry the coffin of his gentle friend tormented into suicide. And there is the girl ostracized in her town because she came out gay. And the string bean who was pushed around until she waved her mom’s pistol on the school bus (nobody was hurt). And there is Alex, slightly deformed by premature birth, called Fish Face by boys who rag him horribly (his mother tries so hard to help, but dad retreats into stern macho silence).
Hirsch has the TV-news impulse to wait for the tears. He caught some bullying with hidden cameras and some adults who ought to lose their jobs. By finally resorting to a rally and speeches and more tears, he falls into the arms of obviousness. But if the movie has to bully its points a little to make people see the problem, so be it.