TITANIC (1997)

By Marc S. Sanders

James Cameron’s Titanic will always remain a timeless piece.  Audiences adore the relationship between the two lovers from different worlds, Jack and Rose, who meet aboard the maiden, and final, voyage of the doomed cruise liner.  Maybe more importantly, the craftsmanship of this film is still beyond compare.  Many know that when this picture was in the making, its budget ran way over and endless rumors of waterlogged technical challenges were rampant through media reports.  Titanic was predicted to sink James Cameron’s career.  Instead, it was the grand Hollywood underdog that no one expected.

I recall seeing the film twice in theaters during the Christmas season of 1997.  I was not so enamored with the script or the fictional love story that Cameron conjured as the central narrative for the real-life tragedy that took approximately fifteen hundred lives on April 15, 1912.  The visual effects were the marvel to watch, and what I patiently waited for, during the second half of the picture.  I had to tread water through the first half though.

A hardly known, but already Oscar nominated (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?),  Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jack Dawson, the poor member of the ship’s steerage company who falls in love with an aristocratic young woman named Rose Dewitt Bukater.  Rose is played by Kate Winslet, who’s uncomfortable with the snobbishly wealthy first class section of people she’s forced to associate with by mandate of her possessively cruel, and supercilious fiancée named Cal (Billy Zane) and her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher).  Call it a Romeo & Juliet love story.  Two lovers are forbidden to be with one another.  Yet, they are going to do it anyway.  It’s simple and nothing dimensional.  It seems to have parallels to Disney’s rated G interpretation of Beauty & The Beast.  Fortunately, what saves the storyline are the performances and chemistry of DiCaprio and Winslet.  These are not even the best roles of either actor’s storied careers.  Yet, they are anything but unlikable. 

The relationship they share aboard Titanic, as it makes its way from Europe to the United States, is told in flashback by a 101 year old woman (Gloria Stuart) to a marine exploration crew who have been meticulously searching through submerged remains of the ship on the ocean floor of the Atlantic.  The most important element to come from this section is a wise choice by Cameron to include an informatively brief analysis of how exactly the ship took on an overabundance of ocean water following a collision with an iceberg, and how it gradually began to sink, weigh down, and split apart before finally concluding with a straight dive down into the murky, cold depths.  I must note that film critic Gene Siskel acknowledged this storytelling device upon the film’s initial release. He hailed this sequence because it offered an early “blueprint” of what audiences could expect to happen and witness during the film’s second half.  We all know the ending to the film, but how exactly did it happen?  The quick breakdown helps.

Ahead of the tragedy, Cameron and his set designers offer a grand, functioning piece of machinery that is absolutely impressive to modern audiences, even over a century later.  The decks and hallways are wonderous.  The forward and aft locations seem familiar and solid.  The CGI on this reinterpretation of Titanic is undetectable.  If this film was going to live up to its name, it most certainly has done so.  This ship looks tremendous and strong and indestructible just as the architect and engineer (Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde) written into the script proudly lay claim to.  The famous moment of the film where Jack supports Rose on the forward bow of the ship with a sunset sky in the background is positively gorgeous.

I do have reservations with the film though.  I think both stories, the forbidden romance and the demise of the ship, in Titanic work.  However, when spliced together, the picture leaves me feeling uneasy.  James Cameron has weaved his fictional romance, appropriate for used, yellow stained paperback books, with a horrifying tragedy.  It’s what you would find in those cheesy Irwin Allen disaster epics from the 1970s.  When Cal’s anger over Jack’s intrusion comes to a boil, he pursues the couple, firing a pistol at them while the ship is continuing to sink.  Jack is apprehended and handcuffed in the lower deck and his doom seems imminent as the water level grows higher.  A priceless blue diamond serves as a MacGuffin that goes back and forth to deliver the operatic divide of these characters.  These are all cinematic inventions painted upon a well-known historical tragedy simply for the sake of adventure and suspense. 

I also found it unconvincing that the only person aboard the ship to question the contingency planning and safety measures ahead of any potential disaster is young Rose, who has no insight into mariner regulation or procedure.  Of all people, it only occurs to Rose that Titanic is not equipped with sufficient lifeboats for all twenty-two hundred people on board.  For storyline options, these avenues written by James Cameron sometimes take me out of the film. 

What I hold fascinating though is where the film depicts the eventual panicked response of the passengers and crew.  We see the captain appear helpless in his defeat against the nature of the ocean running its course over the ship he commands.  A string orchestra chooses to simply perform amid the ongoing disaster, which I have read actually happened.  Most breathtaking is how all the extras in the film react to the growing shift of the ship.  Their slant becomes steeper.  The people do their best to shuffle through the flooding, eventually having to keep their heads above water.  Helpless children are abandoned.  For an emotional punch, the steerage in the below decks is gated off from reaching the top of the ship, and giving themselves a chance at survival on a life boat.  James Cameron accounts for every response and detail that likely occurred during the sinking of the ship.  It’s captivating to witness, despite how tragic the outcome.

Though I do not care for the mix of the love story and the real-life submergence of the ship, Titanic has many strengths beyond what James Cameron achieved with the most up to date technology in visual effects, at the time.  Billy Zane is a villain that you love to hate.  Truly an underrated antagonist in the history of film.  David Warner is an intimidating henchman.  Kathy Bates is a welcome Unsinkable Molly Brown, the crass wealthy woman who sets herself apart from the pretentiousness of her lady peers.   

The exceedingly three-hour running time allows you to become completely familiar with the ship from stem to stern and again the set pieces are magnificent, whether you are hobnobbing with the wealthy up top or the steerage down below.  Every pipe or rope or stairway or hallway or chandelier serves a purpose.  The costumes and makeup designs are appropriate, including the frozen complexions on the bodies that float on the ocean surface following the tragedy.  Cameron’s use of the camera is amazing as he offers wide, expansive shots of nothing but dark ocean with hundreds of people suffering towards their demise. Thus driving home the point that there’s nowhere to find salvation and relief from the bitter cold air and sea water.  These poor people faced unimaginable challenges while competing with panicked crowds, and lack of foresight from those in charge of this newly designed technological wonder.  The movie covers everything that worked against these passengers.

Titanic is an incredible accomplishment. There’s much to see and absorb.  The last time I saw the film was nearly twenty five years ago and much of the footage never escaped my memory.  James Cameron left an indelible impression on moviegoers.  Regardless of the misgivings the film holds, Titanic has held its rightful place as an all-time landmark in cinematic achievement.

NOTE: I took advantage of seeing a newly restored 4K version in 3D at my local movie theater.  I have never been a huge fan of 3D as I often find it murky and distracting from the story.  Had Titanic been offered in standard 2D, that is what I would have gone to see.  Fortunately, this re-release is an exception to my impression with 3D presentations.  The picture is glorious, and I highly recommend the film be seen while it remains in limited release.  Titanic in 3D should not be missed.


By Marc S. Sanders

In A Civil Action, writer/director Steve Zaillian allows John Travolta to demonstrate the workings of a remorseless ambulance chasing lawyer with a pride for the finest in men’s wear and the title of one of the most eligible bachelors in Boston, Massachusetts.  Then, all of that crumbles apart when a self-effacing acknowledgment breaks through. 

Travolta portrays real-life attorney Jan Schlictmann, who heads a small personal injury law practice with three partners (Tony Shalhoub, William H Macy and Zeljko Ivanec).  They go after the cases that promise large settlements from hospitals, insurance companies and multi-million-dollar corporations.  The best cases are where the mid-30’s breadwinning male of the household has suffered irreparable damages.  The victim is not deceased, but permanently handicapped, unable to work and provide for his family.  A dead victim is not as theatrically attractive.   Better to put the poor soul in the wheelchair on stage for the winning cash settlement. 

When Jan is boxed into a corner to meet with the residents of a small New England town, he dismisses their case as an unwinnable nuisance.  The townsfolk believe that their children have taken ill, with some not surviving, due to locally contaminated drinking water.  Kathleen Quinlan is one mother who wants an apology and explanation from whoever is responsible.  An apology holds no tangible value for Jan though, until he observes who the primary suspects are likely to be; two large corporations that own well known brands like Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tropicana Orange Juice, and Samonsite Luggage.  Now the pockets to collect from could go on forever, and Jan does not realize until it’s too late how much of a personal gamble he is undertaking with himself and his partners in tow.

A Civil Action has always left me thinking on so many different levels since I first saw it in theaters.  The value of a life, especially a child’s life, is not very significant when corporate America profits on dollar bills.  The priority of environmental protection and its most precious resource, water, is just as minimal, maybe more.  Zaillian uncovered a fantastic character arc from a very frighteningly sad and true story.   Jan Schlictmann proudly dons an appearance of false care for victims of botched surgeries and car accidents to advance his ego and materialistic nature.  However, then he found a conscience, as he realized that money doesn’t win cases for his clients.  Instead, the acceptance of responsibility triumphs.  That surrendering admittance, though, is not expected to come from these companies.  Not when the burden of proof only comes from a measly platoon of four small town attorneys, who could never bear the expenses of proving such gross negligence and wrong doing.  This is a David & Goliath confrontation. 

Beyond a cast of recognizable faces, there are scenes in this film that just stay with you.  Most especially for me is the unforgiving nature of Quinlan’s suffering maternal character.  She no longer has any care in the world for whatever sacrifices are made by the lawyers to reveal the truth of what happened.  I didn’t think that was fair of her, frankly.  Zaillian demonstrates what these four guys endure as the case prolongs itself.  However, people are unfair.  Sometimes they are unreasonable because they have been pushed down to a bottom they’ll never climb up from.  This movie and the circumstances at play are not here to please me and make me feel good with a tidy ending wrapped in a bow, however.  The script is brutally honest in its characterizations.

What’s also disturbing about this case is simply water.  Countless times, Steve Zaillian gets close up shots of glasses and pitchers of clear, crisp water.  Children are drinking water.  Water is spilled on tables.  Jan’s enemies in trial will indulge in a refreshing gulp from a glass as they finish a scene with him.  The movie reminds you time and again that water is the silent killer.

Robert Duvall is the shining talent on the other side of the aisle from Travolta as an attorney in a fifty-dollar suit with a beat up fifty-dollar briefcase representing one of the large companies that is being sued.  Duvall makes his shark of an attorney appear effortless.  He falls asleep in court.  He tucks away in a corner to listen to the Red Sox play on his transistor radio.  Yet, he’s wise enough to know how to derail an opposing counsel’s case with just his quiet, unspoken presence at the table.  He isn’t even so much a villain or an antagonist as he allows the hero of the film ample opportunity to settle rather than charge on.  His urgencies don’t work however because Jan has changed.  Where he once saw money, he now sees something much more valuable that is beyond any variance of negotiation.  The scenes shared between the handsome, fit and well-dressed John Travolta against the older, short, hunched yet astute Robert Duvall play beautifully here.  There is top notch stage performance work happening here.

It amazes me that A Civil Action is not available on Blu Ray or 4K.  Look at this cast and its direction.  It’s magnificent.  Zaillian’s film moves with a fast pace of easy-to-follow courtroom theatrics.  Additional performances from Sydney Pollack, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, and John Lithgow are so engrossing.  William H Macy is very good too, as the desperate man trying to keep Jan’s cause afloat.  Why is this film not being granted the accessibility it deserves?  I actually had to pay for a streaming rental watch.  No matter, it was worth it.  For like Jan Schlictmann, money is not the most important commodity known to man.  Morality and decency will stretch further than money that’s been spent, never to be replenished.  A noble and most human thing you can do is to experience Steve Zaillian’s film, A Civil Action. Then you will understand what an unjust world any one of us could fall victim to.  Then maybe you will understand the loss a loving mother endures far outweighs any financial liability from a grocery food company.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Léa Seydoux, Michael Sheen
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A nostalgic screenwriter travels with his fiancée’s family to Paris where, every night at midnight, he inexplicably finds himself going back in time to the 1920s.

The best of times is now / As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
La Cage Aux Folles

It’s currently 11:05 at night on a Sunday evening.  I’m getting older, so if I’m smart, I should get off to bed, owing to the fact I have to get up early tomorrow to get ready for work.

But I can’t.  I have just re-watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for only the second time in my life, and I have revised my original rating of 9 up to a 10.  And I am just bursting to write about how wonderful this movie is.  I’m hoping that I can reach someone who has not seen it before, so I can convince them that, even if they’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie before, this is the one they should start with.  Yes, even over Annie Hall or Manhattan or even Match Point.  In my mind, Midnight in Paris captures the voice of the artist as he is reaching a certain age and has something important to say about nostalgia, and how sometimes it’s not always what it’s cracked up to be.

Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) is a Hollywood screenwriter trying to complete his first novel.  He and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), travel to Paris with her family so he can perhaps get inspired by one of the all-time great cities of the world.  He is immediately smitten with the atmosphere of the place; the movie opens with a wordless montage of static shots of Parisian cafés, streets, museums, statues, apartment buildings, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.  The sequence sounds simple on paper, but the effect is – I don’t know how to describe it.  It captures the ineffable romance of the place.  More so than any other movie set in Paris, Midnight in Paris really, REALLY makes me want to go there.

Gil and Inez seem happy enough, but he is a little more antisocial than she is.  He is star-struck by Paris, but Inez is not incredibly fond of it.  They bump into an old friend of Inez’s, a pleasant enough man who turns out to be a bit pedantic; during a museum tour, he presumptuously corrects the tour guide on details of the life of Auguste Rodin.  This is not the kind of guy I would want to be stuck with on an elevator.

One night, Gil goes walking by himself on the Paris streets and gets a little lost.  Long story short, he inexplicably finds himself transported back to Paris of the 1920s, when the cafés were full of American expats and frequent visitors like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, etcetera.  As a writer, Gil is over the moon; it just so happens his unfinished novel is about a man who runs a “nostalgia shop”, so this pleasant turn of events is a welcome tonic to his vaguely unhappy days back in the present.

Watching the scenes of Gil rapturously conversing with Hemingway, or goggling at Cole Porter playing the piano, I was swept away by the audaciousness of this movie.  It’s illogical and steeped in fantasy and seems to be begging not to be taken too seriously.  But it is a pure joy to watch.  I immediately identified with Gil.  I found myself imagining how I would respond if I were somehow transported back to a time and place when some of my own idols walked the Earth: Hollywood, the 1940s, walking around and conversing with Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn.  Or even not so far back: the 1970s, having lunch with young Spielberg and Coppola and Lucas, and Pacino and Streep and DeNiro, discussing film and life and getting insight into their inner workings.

From our perch in the present, it’s easy for us to look back at the past and say, well, those were the days.  Just earlier today, I was having an online discussion about the difference between CGI and practical effects in movies like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings and even Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.  We tell each other that older movies felt more real because the effects were made with real props occupying real space, whether they were miniatures or matte paintings or what have you.  And we say, “Man, they just don’t make them like that anymore.  They knew what they were doing back then.”

That’s Gil.  He looks around at the shimmering jewel of Paris in the 1920s and he’s convinced that this is “where it’s at.”  What can today’s world offer in comparison to sitting in a café and discussing art with Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel?  Or the pleasure at hearing Ernest Hemingway tell you he’ll hate your book, even if it’s good, because that would make you a better author than him?  Or getting constructive notes on your novel from Gertrude Stein?

The story progresses.  Gil becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman from the past, Adriana (a luminous Marion Cotillard), and it becomes harder and harder for him to go back to his own present each night.  Inez’s father gets suspicious and hires a private detective to follow Gil during his midnight strolls.  You may ask how a private detective can follow someone who is traveling back in time.  Well, my friend, that is an EXCELLENT question, one which the movie answers in satisfying and gut-busting fashion in the final reel.

But the heart of the movie lies in the touching, revealing segment when Gil and Adriana go even further back in time, this time in a horse-and-carriage, back to the Belle Époque, the “Beautiful Age” of Paris, which lasted from about the 1870s to the 1910s.  Adriana, who lives — lived — in the ‘20s, is entranced with this even more bygone era.  She feels about the Belle Époque the way Gil feels about the ‘20s.  To her, the ‘20s are slow-paced, a drudge.  But, oh, to be back in the 1890s!  Dinner at Maxim’s, the Moulin Rouge, meeting Toulouse-Latrec and Gauguin and Degas!  How wonderful those days must have been compared to the Boring Twenties!

And there’s the message of the movie.  We can grouse and grumble about the modern world all we want.  The movies are dime-a-dozen.  The books even more so.  The music is crap.  Cell phones have turned us into tiny-screen junkies.  But, oh, to be back in the good old days of the 1980s, when the music was gnarly, and the movies were iconic, and the books were amazing, and everything was just better.

But we forget that, in the ‘80s, people were grousing and grumbling about THAT era, and they longed for the more sedate and rosy era of the 1950’s.  And in the ‘50s, people said the ‘30s were the BEST.  DECADE.  EVER.  And so on and so on.

It’s human nature for us not to realize what we’ve got going for us until it’s gone.  We are living in glorious times.  (Coronavirus and politics notwithstanding…gimme a break, I’m trying to make a point here.)  Look around.  Really SEE it.  Embrace it.  We don’t need a time machine to go back to our glory days.  We’re IN our glory days.  Just wait.  In 20 years, you’ll look back on the 2010s and say, “Man, wasn’t that a time?”

If you take nothing else away from the above review, remember this: Midnight in Paris is pure charm, is laugh-out-loud funny, and is the best Woody Allen film since Match Point.  So if you haven’t seen it, you really, really, REALLY need to make a point to do so.


By Marc S. Sanders

Director Mimi Leder provides a biopic on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On The Basis Of Sex. The movie is worth a view even if it is nothing very special.

Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg capably, even if her British accent keeps intruding into her performance. If Jones raises her voice in a debate with her daughter, all I’m hearing is Jyn Erso from Star Wars.

Leder’s film opens in 1956 as Ginsburg is depicted dressed in blue as a lone woman walking the campus of Harvard among a sea of male law students dressed in black. I’ve seen symbolism like that before. Nothing inventive here. From there, we learn she is entering the school as of one of nine women in the student body.

Ginsburg is married to fellow law student sophomore, Martin Ginsburg, played by Armie Hammer. I’m convinced if a film takes place at Harvard, Armie Hammer is going to be cast. He’s become a poster boy for the institution. When Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth accepts the challenge of not only attending her classes but Martin’s as well so he does not fall behind. Ruth then requests to finish her law degree at Columbia University to be with her husband. This is her first challenge as she is denied the request and its apparent because she is simply a woman. She perseveres and goes anyway. From there, Leder depicts a setting where even if you are at the top of your class at both Harvard and Columbia, if you are a woman, a mother and Jewish, then there is no job available to you as an attorney. Therefore, Ruth must settle for being a law professor.

The film jumps to 1970. Ruth’s daughter, Jane played by Cailee Spainee is a preteen ably ready to debate with her mother about the merits of Atticus Finch while Ruth continues to fall second to the male population mostly reliant on laws seem directed in preference to men over women. Don’t be too hard on our forefathers. Times have changed! Eventually, Martin introduces a case that would be perfect for Ruth to champion. An unwed man is denied a tax deduction for nursing expenses for his elderly mother. Had he been married or divorced or widowed or even if he’d been a woman, then the deduction would qualify. After all, single adult men should be out hobnobbing and earning a wage, or fighting in a war. So, if we can’t convince our lawmakers that a woman deserves the same equal rights as man, how would it appear if men were not entitled to certain rights equally? The case makes its way to the Supreme Court as Martin and Ruth team up for the cause.

All of this very inspiring and really should be seen by young students to open their minds to what they as people and American citizens are entitled to. However, I worry that if I were to show this film to my daughter, for example, she’d just get bored. Yes. You have to stick to the facts of the story and how it all played but the case that Ruth represents is kind of stale I’m afraid. If I, as a banker by day, find this case uninteresting, what should I expect of other adults and young viewers alike.

As well, Leder and screenwriter, Daniel Stiepleman (Ruth’s real life nephew), portray the opposition as tough minded, stubborn and bullish. Stiepleman might have been pushing this portrayal a little too far though. Were these great minds of debate and justice really this foolhardy and mean, or is this all for cinematic effect?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a hero because she’s an agent of change. Many of our current laws and those that continue to be updated must be credited to her efforts. The film primarily focuses on this one case which blazed the trail for her legacy to come. I would have rather have seen the legacy though. I bet that is much more exciting than listening to an exchange of tax law between Martin and Ruth. It just doesn’t make for good movie material and admittedly I got lost in some of the legal jargon speak. What happened exactly?!?! What now!?!?!

Jane and Ruth’s relationship kind of plays like an afterschool special. Jane did follow in her mother’s footsteps but it came off kind of hokey to me how Jane eventually participates in Ruth and Martin’s legal team. Still, this is a device that can attract young students to the material. I just think it’s kind of cheesy. There was better adult/kid chemistry and writing in Iron Man 3, for example.

Kathy Bates and Justin Theroux were kind of distracting to me as individuals who allied with Ruth. They are larger than life in this film and really they shouldn’t be. This film is about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no one else.

On The Basis Of Sex won’t put you to sleep. I learned about Ginsburg’s beginnings a little bit. So I’m grateful for that, but as far as entertainment and insight, I’d turn to another source. Perhaps, I will seek out the 2018 Oscar nominated documentary RBG that is gaining massive positive response. I expect I’ll take away more from that film than just a dried up tax case that’s detailed over two hours.