Seen on Screen: Titanic, The Kid with a Bike, Bully, American Reunion

The perfect young stars to install a heart into the ship, the romance, and the tragedy.
  • The perfect young stars to install a heart into the ship, the romance, and the tragedy.

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.


Kid with a Bike 4.0

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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.


Bully 3.0

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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.


American Reunion

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The first American Pie comedy anticipated, I now realize, Minny’s special, anally retentive pie in The Help. Now comes the fourth pungent slice, American Reunion. The “old” gang (pushing 30) returns for a high school reunion. The men find their inner 18, the women are more like 22 facing 40. From the rectal joke to the porn joke to the gay sex joke to the masturbation joke to the penis-in-a-glass-pan joke, it’s all downhill. Maybe the bare-breasts sequence counts as family humor.

Jim (Jason Biggs) is still cute. Stiffler (Seann William Scott) is still a party animal and obnoxious bonehead. As Jim’s dad, Eugene Levy still flashes tiny facets of his talent (few fans of this series know his great comedy work on SCTV). The one suave buddy (Eddie Kaye Thomas) cracks a line about The Brothers Karamazov. Hey, dude, say it in Russian! This moron movie is for diehard fans; the rest of us die watching.

Newsreel: Marco Bertozzi joins the panel after his new documentary screens at 7 p.m. Friday (April 13) at the Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park. Perfughi a Cinecittá (Refugees in Cinecittá) is about the Roman studio’s post-WWII use as a refugee center before being reborn as one of the greatest film factories. Donation for the event, sponsored by the San Diego Italian Film Festival, is $5.

Reviewed in the movie capsules: The Cabin in the Woods and Damsels in Distress.

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Saying “I do” is hard

Movie reviews are borne of a subjective amalgam of the author’s personal experiences and learned wisdom. Personal likes/dislikes about a genre, camera angle, actors, or direction are to be expected. Thus, it’s no surprise so much valuable print space is wasted on the discussion of film reviews—this letter included—but more often in the Reader Movie Review section. A reviewer stating an opinion about a movie is great when backing up their feelings with reasons—allowing me to decide to choose to lay out cash for a ticket. A legacy of Reader reviews trashing a movie, countered ferociously by readers of the opposite opinion, and sometimes, vice versa. It’s not often when you get to watch as a reviewer does both by himself in one piece.

David Elliott’s April 11 nostalgic review of a nostalgic film spends the first three paragraphs scuttling his feelings about the movie in a thinly veiled attempt to prove to the readership and film intelligentsia that he should know better, then the remaining four resurrecting them. One doesn’t need to apologize for liking a movie for the things that make it likable. Only the crassest of cinema snobs are going to fault one for appreciating the grandeur of an epic that harkens back to a style when film was about the relationships between characters caught in dramatic circumstances. That’s the human relatability thread that makes movie goers care—and the reason there are separate categories in the Oscars for Best Film and Best Documentary. That grandeur doesn’t come cheap, either. Viewers can vote with their feet if they don’t like a film. When the director who changed the face of cinema technology with the introduction of Avatar rolls out a 3-D version of a 2-D filmed epic, I’d hope he dropped some coin to update it to the current standards that he advanced.

Reviews are supposed to act as the first wave on the beach, helping us decide which route to chart amongst the detritus of trumped up laurels from the Kansas City Star and their ilk. Cynics (ain’t nobody here but us chickens) can confuse success with greed all they want; without big box office returns, blockbusters on this scale don’t get risked by studios. Attempts to agitate for equivalency between a film’s popular success and an Occupy Fill-In-The-Blank notion of greed will elicit more sweeping vistas and cinemagraphic excellence on the scale of The Blair Witch Project and it’s hand held on-hanger progeny—of course, driving the profit margins higher on such fare and encouraging more such “sell outs”. I’ll continue to look at what reviewers say, then make my own call on the next James Cameron film, or any film that piques my interest, and not worry about someone catching me enjoying it. For those more self-conscious viewers, IFC usually gets thrown into the first tier cable package at no extra cost. You either like this stuff or you don’t.

--Matthew Thompson

Matthew, Within the convolutions of your prose can be seen an amateur psychoanalyst, always a risky role to play. Your main point seems to be that I am sheepish or apologetic in support of "Titanic." Not true. As I said in my much longer review in 1997 and suggest in my new, shorter review (the column had to move on to newer films), "Titanic" is a mixed bag that I strongly endorse. Not to mention its flaws would be an evasion, yet the film surpasses those flaws with its sweeping scale, beauty and romance, and the overriding tragedy of the ship. I also had to mention the money issues that have always contextualized this hit (I can recall critics sneering at the $200 million cost as a damning factor). I don't write blurbs, even when I like a movie as much as this one. I assume that since you care about criticism you don't want reviews that simply gush or dismiss, but ones that offer context and balanced nuances. Helping to sort those out is where a critic can be of real use to readers. David

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