Wednesday, December 19, 2007

‘Titanic’ at 10: Our sappy hearts go on and on

By Gina Carbone

Rose was true to her word -- she never did let go. Ten years later, “Titanic” is still the top grossing film of all time. $1.8 billion overall. The only one who came close -- “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” -- was $700 million shy. $700 million. That’s the entire international gross of the “Transformers” movie which, you may recall, did pretty well this year.

Remember when the tabloids jumped all over the budget? $200 million! No big-name stars! No sequel potential! Who let James Cameron chase gold-plated windmills? What wanton hubris!

Ha ha ha. Of course now the Monday morning quarterbacks could give you 100 reasons why “Titanic” sailed off with the prize and has yet to be beaten by any number of stars, special effects, hobbits, wookies, pirates or wizards.

But I don’t care. I just know how much of a total arse I made of myself the first time I saw it, the five subsequent screenings, and every time I watch my DVD and dance to the Irish music during the “real party” in steerage. Yes, it’s my fault it’s the No. 1 movie of all time. Me and several million 13-year-olds.

I first saw “Titanic” on Dec. 21, 1997 -- two days after it opened. I know because I transcribed the painfully earnest experience in my diary. The theater in my then-hometown of Lowell, Mass., was sold out. I was 21 but didn’t have any friends then -- or now -- willing to see “Titanic.” So I went with my mom and her friend.

Movies, books, TV shows, commercials -- they all tend to make me emotional, but something hit me inexplicably hard that night. I started my “Titanic” tear-flowing when the little third-class girl corrected her father that it’s a ship, not a boat. (FYI, that was within the first half-hour, before anyone even left land.) By the time Old Rose died peacefully in her sleep (she seemed to expect it, so why did she bring the fish and all that other luggage?), the teen girl to my left was delicately dabbing the mist from her eyes and I was hyperventilating, heaving sobs, dripping from my eyes, nose and mouth as my mother asked me if I was going to make it. Unfortunately I did make it home alive in time to begin that night’s diary entry with “Never let go!”

It pains me to admit this. I only do so because I know I am far from alone in my hindsight of shame.

After that fateful night I watched “Titanic” two more times in this country. I worked at a movie theater in Burlington, Mass., so when not seeing movies in Lowell I saw them for free 20 minutes away. But I did manage to waste unrecorded amounts of money on stories, photos, gossip -- anything on Leo and Kate or the real Titanic. Sometimes even a story on Billy Zane would do, if nothing else was around. Since these were the halcyon days before mainstream Internet, scouring newspapers and magazines was my best bet.

In February of 1998 I started my five month study abroad in Perth, Western Australia. I stayed in something of a Smurf village with about 30 cottages, each with eight students inside. It was “Real World: Australia” in my house with three Americans, three Australians, a Korean and -- depending on the month -- a Malaysian girl or a Chinese professor and his assistant. Australia is about three months behind the United States in getting movies. So when I arrived Down Under, my Aussie and Korean roommates and some neighbors from Japan and Malaysia hadn’t seen “Titanic” yet but were dying to. So I saw it three more times. My Korean roommate fell as hard as I did and swore her boyfriend back home looked just like a Korean Leonardo DiCaprio.

Half-way through my study in Australia I had to fly to Florida for my brother’s wedding. It takes a full 24 hours just to fly from Perth to Tampa, not counting layovers. I had four days in Florida. I made sure one of them included a trip to the Titanic museum in St. Petersburg. I bought the Titanic mug I am drinking tea from as I write this.

When I was back in Australia I made sure to buy Aussie magazines with Kate and Leo on the cover. And, sure, Billy Zane. I loyally stayed up to watch “Titanic” win 11 Academy Awards, one after another, as my roommates dozed off, one after another. (The Oscars aired very, very early in the morning in Perth.)

The last time I saw “Titanic” on the big screen was outdoors -- also the last time I saw a drive-in movie. Three Australian friends and I drove to a place in the middle of nowhere, set up a picnic blanket and watched a “Titanic”/“Full Monty” double feature. It was perfect.

Ten years later, I don’t have a “Titanic” special edition DVD. I don’t plan to buy the new commemorative one. I have a cheapie I bought with some measure of chagrin a couple of years ago and have only watched in pieces. It pales on the small screen. I find myself criticizing things I had long given a knee-jerk defense. I have no patience for Bill Paxton -- though I love him -- and any of his modern story. I roll my eyes at Billy Zane. I wince anew at the Picasso reference and the spitting. I squint with dispassion at Rose’s suicide attempt and wonder if maybe Kate Winslet did look a little heavy in that scene.

A couple of years ago I read an article in Psychology Today about how people connect more strongly over things they dislike than things they like. So the “Titanic” backlash movement must be a band of brothers by now. The Web site “Why People Hate Titanic” quotes Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times: "... the flip side of ‘Titanic’s’ ability to draw hordes of viewers into theaters is... (that) in its unintentional underlining of how narrow an audience net most movies cast over the American public, ‘Titanic’ is not an example of Hollywood's success, it's an emblem of its failure."

Snob. Whatever. At least he watched it. I feel a mix of sadness and frustration for my friends who pride themselves in never having seen “Titanic.” Go ahead and hate it for the schlock it certainly is (The script! Celine Dion! Leo’s hair! Billy Zane!) but see it first so you can load the right ammunition.

No amount of time or cynicism can diminish my love for “Titanic” or pride in having been a part of something larger than myself. Just the fact that I bonded with people from around the world over love for this movie warms the cockles of my heart. Cheesy as it is, that’s a memory I’ll never let go.

Gina Carbone used to write film reviews for the Curtin University newspaper in Perth. She can be reached at

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

‘Knocked’ sensible

Katherine Heigl struck honest oil with ‘sexist’ comment — so don’t back down now, girl

By Gina Carbone

Here’s a whopper of a secret: Hollywood is sexist. And it’s making a success of it.

I trust you haven’t fallen off your chair.

And yet, when Katherine Heigl decided to call out her own summer sleeper — “Knocked Up” — for keeping to Hollywood’s unofficial cash code, Tinseltown and even some Average Viewers collectively gasped and clutched their pearls.

“It was a little sexist,” Heigl said in Vanity Fair’s January cover story. “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.”

Personally I loved the movie. But I couldn’t agree with her more. Of course it was sexist. In exactly the manner she describes.

More of my thoughts later. First, the trial by public opinion, which was swift and polarized.

The Hum gossip column at E! Online wasn’t sure where to begin.

“Ouch! This leaves us in an awkward place. Should we praise her for being so honest and frank—or scold her for lashing out against what made her successful?”

Some of the column’s readers were more open.

• “Katherine is a awful actress and she don't know when to shut-up,” wrote one. “If she hated the movie so much why did she film it. In short she's saying she would lower he standards for the dollar. Her career will be short lived I can't stand her.”

• “Katherine rocks — it is refreshing that she is so honest,” wrote another. “I really think some people have over reacted — if you read her full quotes she isn't slamming anything just point out a few things she didn’t like about the characters. I think she made some very valid points. Thank god she is a celebrity who actually has something to say and can actually speak without having to hide behind a publicist. Love the girl.”

From Huffington Post readers:

• “I'm glad she didn't call Knocked Up completely sexist, but I think she's still wrong in her assessment here. The guys in the movie, while being ‘lovable, goofy, [and] fun-loving’, were also immature, selfish and crass... which is the typical stereotype for men in movies and tv shows. Both sides are represented with alternatingly stereotypical and atypical characteristics, which is what makes the characters and their interactions seem more real than 99% of Hollywood romantic garbage. Stereotypes are drawn from common experiences and while using them to pidgeonhole real people is wrong, lampooning them in entertainment is pretty much the very heart of comedy.”

• “Vacuous. What an idiot. Must have stayed up all night with her publicist to come up with something to say. Another example of ‘fame does not equal brains,’ like Shaq, George Bush et al.”

And from Defamer:

• “’Knocked Up’ may not exactly be realism city, but it's certainly no less credible than ’27 Dresses,’ wherein Katherine Heigl is upset because she's not pretty enough to get a date. Strictly in terms of the message being sent to young impressionable women, I would definitely say ‘Dresses’ is far more pernicious.”

• “The movie was a flippin' COMEDY! It was supposed to be as outrageous as it could possibly be. That's what made it so successful. It was about the most unbelieveable scenario possible. I have no doubts that there are many men that live day-to-day just like Seth Rogen's character. Just like I have no doubts there are just as many women out there like Katherine's. Would they ‘hook up’ & end up any different than the characters in the movie? Doubt it! If Hollywood put out movies that were as predictable as our day-to-day lives, they wouldn't be doing much business.”

• “I think what she might be getting at is that, if the movie was about a fat ugly stoner chick with a heart of gold who marries a god played by, say, Christian Bale, everyone would be all 'THAT SHIT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN'. Yet we totally buy Apatow's reverse version. And I'm totally ambivilent about Heigl. I just get where she's coming from.”

Speaking of Apatow, he’s turned these potential lemons into lemonade. New York Magazine asked the director about Heigl’s comments and he told them this:

"I think the characters are sexist at times, but it's really about immature people who are afraid of women and relationships and learn to grow up. If people say that the characters are sexist, I say, yeah, that's what I was going for in the first part of the movie, and then they change."

When the magazine asked if he's had his feelings hurt, he blamed Vanity Fair for twisting her comments. "I've done a lot of interviews, and when you're promoting a movie, you talk for hours and hours and hours, and so it's very easy for something to be taken out of context. I'm just happy people are talking about ‘Knocked Up’ six months after it came out."

Then he made his masterstroke: "You know we're on the cover of Vanity Fair. It reminds people that they need to buy ‘Knocked Up’ on DVD and judge for themselves."


But Apatow didn’t quite come out and defend Heigl with the full truth — she wasn’t bashing her movie. She wasn’t even coming up with an original thought. She was just enjoying a day without the veneer of better-be-polite-than-truthful codswallop that most people — especially actors who want to stay in business — plaster over their emotions all the time.

Unfortunately, that was probably Heigl’s last honest day. Even now her PR machine seems to be backpedaling.

As she told People magazine last week, "I was responding to previous reviews about the movie the interviewer brought to my attention. My motive was to encourage other women like myself to not take that element of the movie too seriously and to remember that it's a broad comedy."

Her “clarification” tour seems pointed at reiterating how “Knocked Up” was one of the greatest experiences of her life. Well, yes, she did allude to that in her original quote. She also made a bold statement few actresses would dare to say about their own films and she should be proud. Go for the legacy, Katie!

For the record, here’s the paragraph that preceded her “sexist” quote in Vanity Fair.

“Heigl is equally forthright about the movie that catapulted her onto the A-list. Many critics raved about ‘Knocked Up’ but quite a few discerned an underlying misogyny that made female characters into unappealing caricatures while romanticizing immature and irresponsible male behavior. Heigl counts herself among those who were perturbed.”

I am among those “quite a few” critics. As I wrote in a three-star review: “Although I loved this movie, I’m getting tired of the ‘King of Queens’ world where attractive, capable women fall in love with/end up mothering shlubby, childish men. (Apatow also produced ‘Anchorman,’ which epitomizes this set-up.) Alison and, especially, Debbie are not just the more mature, eye-rolling halves of their respective pairs; they’re often shrewish, nagging, neurotic, vain and awful to be around. The men, on the other hand, are just good-hearted blokes who like to have fun, tell jokes, play fantasy baseball and take it easy.”

I don’t deploy the sexist card as a knee-jerk reaction to every slight. I’m no man-hater and apart from a few days a month I live without penis envy. Still, I won’t deny jealousy is at the root of many of my Hollywood complaints.

I’m down for a “Fight Club.” I’d gladly be Mr. Pink in “Reservoir Dogs.” I want to face the peril with Monty Python. I’ll learn “The Way of the Gun.” Where do I sign up to be Jason Bourne?

I’m not the only girl who lives vicariously through boys’ adventures. As Debbie whined to her husband, Pete, in “Knocked Up,” “I like Spider-Man.” Yes, and I’d rather see it with Pete than Debbie. Not because he’s a guy, but because he’s as cool as my female friends.

What Hollywood STILL doesn’t seem to get is that women are just like men. We are all different people, not a series of flawless clones sharing a single Borg-like identity. (Oh, and when I say flawless, I mean physically – lack of intelligence is fine. Ugly chicks can stay on as sidekicks to make the real girls look even more attractive. They can even make witty comebacks, but they’ll never get the guy.)

This is the year of the mega-nerd. From “Knocked Up” to “Superbad” and TV’s entries of “Chuck” and “Reaper,” being a young awkward man has never been so rewarding.

Not that it was going through a dry spell. Back in “The Graduate” a directionless Dustin Hoffman — hardly a Redford — landed a lovely Katharine Ross. Remember “American Pie”? And the sequels? (Can we finally put a moratorium on the male coming-of-age-story?)

What do the women get? Tepid romantic weepies, vapid BFFs getting drunk and screaming “woo!” in some twat’s version of “empowerment.” And “Ugly Betty.” “Ugly Betty,” which stars the beautiful America Ferrera and includes an early episode where the atypical protagonist I’m supposed to be so proud of dresses up and is greeted by catcalls on the New York sidewalk. “Really?!” she gasps, pointing to herself. “Thank you!”

Yeah, that’s a good representation of me and my friends. Thanks for that.

Hard to say if “Juno” is going to chip away at if not break the mold for women since it’s still in limited release (which translates to “nowhere near Portsmouth, N.H.”). Fingers crossed.

Ironically Hollywood’s most refreshing look at a male/female relationship in years came from Apatow himself: “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” True the irresponsible, immature men were still present, but so was the sweet, loving Andy (attractive Steve Carell) and his funny, patient, more experienced girlfriend, Trish (equally but not more attractive Catherine Keener). A balanced, sensitive, adult take on humanity — and it still managed to be hilarious. Huh.

If more characters like that were written into Hollywood’s scripts instead of tired fanboy stereotypes, Katherine Heigl wouldn’t have to resort to actual honesty in a major magazine. She’d probably appreciate the break.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Tyranny of Continuity

By Lars Trodson

I was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” the other day, and he certainly nailed the look and feel and dynamic of those old movies that I have now come to know as “grindhouse” pictures – those earnest, if not completely competent, cinematic endeavors made by people who may have loved the movies but didn’t necessarily have the craft to make them with the spit and polish we have come to expect out of Hollywood.

There are certain examples of these movies, such as “Death Race 2000” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” and even an old Nick Adams movie about drag racing in the south that I had seen as a kid but can’t remember the name of, that completely captivated me because they were insanely entertaining. I didn’t care then and I don’t care now that they were, as one would say, poorly made. That isn’t the right definition. I liked them, and I didn’t care if they had mistakes in what we now so imperiously call “continuity.”

Somewhere, some time ago, someone had the bright idea that they would begin to catalogue the “mistakes” that we can see in films. You know, “continuity” is whether one of the extras in ‘Spartacus’ is wearing a watch. Why does George Bailey have a wreath over his arm when, in the scene before, he had placed all the wreathes on the counter of the old Building and Loan. Why does the level of liquid in the glasses fluctuate in the glasses on the table during a conversation in…well…any number of movies? That’s why I guess you see so many actors drinking out of empty paper coffee cups now. You don’t have to worry about those liquid levels from shot to shot.

But the truth of the matter is, some of our most beloved movies are a nightmare of continuity. On a purely technical level, “The Wizard of Oz” is a mess. So is “The Departed.” In one scene Jack Nicholson is walking toward the actor playing the young Matt Damon and in the shot from behind he’s smoking a cigarette and when it reverses to the front of Nicholson the cigarette is gone. There’s a bunch of that kind of thing in the movie and nobody cares. I don’t care. That movie is hands down one great achievement.

I couldn’t tell you one mistake in continuity in “American Gangster”, especially in the fact that it didn’t fail to bore me from beginning to end. What can I say?

There is a certain craft, of course, to getting details right. You don’t want some nightmare of continuity to so throw off the audience that they disregard the story. But do I care that the dove that Roy Batty releases at the end of “Blade Runner” flaps up into a clear blue sky when the scene when he releases it in takes place at night in the rain? I do not. I guess this has been fixed in the latest reincarnation of that picture, but even so it was a masterpiece before the amendment.

When we have made our own little pictures here in New Hampshire, the filmmakers I worked with were obsessed with continuity, and I could not have cared less about it. My feeling was if that these little details are noticed, then we lost the audience any way. I thought sometimes it was easier for us to fixate on those problems, the technical ones, that were approachable, rather than concentrating on the hardest part, which is the performances and nuance.

But to say that we will have lost the audience is not so true today. The film geeks out there will kill you if you screw up your continuity -- look at those dumb idiots, they’ll say -- while at the same time, I would imagine, some of them revere the same European and American classics that all filmmakers do, despite the multitude of technical glitches seen so obviously within the frame.

Even “Citizen Kane”, if you look closely enough, has a few glaring sound synchronization problems that would drive you crazy if you actually cared about them. So the armies of bloggers and writers and film pundits decided some time ago to focus on what they could understand -- the “continuity” of a picture. As a result, we have a cascade of sleekly made Hollywood product made by hordes of script supervisors who have made sure the scarves are on exactly right from frame to frame, without caring that the actors wearing those scarves are delivering the most mundane dialogue in wooden positions.

If we didn’t care so much about this, we would be able to concentrate on what we most remember from movies, which is the story and the words and the acting, and if we love a movie, then we will forgive its little idiocyncracies.

Tarantino was right to blow through these petty expectations in his recent “Grindhouse” movie. I only saw the “Death Proof” half, and he caught the continuity problems that were a hallmark of those old cheap pictures perfectly.

But it isn’t Tarantino’s particular form of craftsmanship that we should take away from that movie. It’s rather that he understood such glitches should never, ever get in the way of enjoying a movie. More often than not, we remember and embrace the wildness and rawness of these films, because they were made by enthusiastic people hellbent on doing their own thing, hoping that in the end we would enjoy it.

One thing I think is true, despite what you may think of his own movies, is that Tarantino loves movies, loves people who make them, and loves the idea that you can bring to an audience a kind of entertainment even if you do not have all your gaffing and continuity ducks in a row.

The lesson from “Grindhouse” is to embrace the exuberance of moviemaking, the pure adrenalin joy of it, and forget about worrying whether the cigarette ash is the same length from one shot to the next.