#631) Wattstax (1973)

#631) Wattstax (1973)

OR “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Directed by Mel Stuart

Class of 2020

The Plot: On August 20th, 1972, almost exactly seven years after the riots in the Black neighborhood of Watts, the largest civil unrest in Los Angeles up to that time, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum hosted a one-time concert to celebrate the community’s regrowth. Presented by Stax Records, Wattstax featured over 30 Black artists from the record’s label, including the Staple Singers, Kim Weston, Jimmy Jones, Rance Allen, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Luther Ingram, and Isaac Hayes. The concert was filmed for this documentary, as were candid conversations with Watts residents, additional performances by such Stax artists as The Emotions and Little Milton, and running commentary from comedian Richard Pryor.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “more than simply a great concert film”, praising the “dazzling music highlights”, the “incisive comments from people on the Watts streets”, and the “Shakespearean musing” of Richard Pryor. There’s also an essay by Al Bell, former Stax Records Chairman and executive producer on “Wattstax”.

But Does It Really?: I’m always pleasantly surprised when a concert movie on this list goes beyond the performances and tells me about the community and the culture, and “Wattstax” succeeds on this front. While the ratio of concert performances to “the other stuff” is more evenly split than most concert docs, I finished “Wattstax” with a better understanding of a specific time and place in American history. Most documentaries about historical events spend little time on how those events permanently changed a community, but “Wattstax” focuses solely on that aftermath, showing a neighborhood that is not only surviving, but thriving. Plus, you can never go wrong with a soundtrack that good. A pass for NFR inclusion for “Wattstax”.

Shout Outs: One of the best shout-outs to another NFR film this blog has ever encountered: Isaac Hayes opens his set with “Theme from ‘Shaft’“. Damn right.

Every Record Company Gets One: Founded in 1957 by siblings Jim Steward and Estelle Axton, Stax Records differentiated itself in the recording industry by not only including an ethnically diverse roster of artists, but also an equally diverse production team. Based in Memphis, Stax was picked up by Atlantic Records for national distribution, helping them become a serious competitor with Motown. By the early 1970s, Stax found itself on shaky financial ground after being dropped by Atlantic. The Wattstax concert was conceived by Stax’s West coast director Forrest Hamilton, who had been in Watts during the riots and thought an all-star benefit concert could help support a good cause while simultaneously giving the label a much needed boost.

Wow, That’s Dated: Obvious racial issues aside, we have another installment of “We Suck at Inflation” and its spin-off “We Suck at Not Price Gouging”. To ensure a large attendance, tickets for Wattstax were sold for $1 apiece, which is about $7 in today’s money. If that concert was today, $7 would be the smallest of Ticketmaster’s multiple surcharges and the whole thing would be sold out online within seconds, leading to scalping and the sort of classism this kind of event was designed to avoid. Whoo, got a little lightheaded there. Where were we?

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nod for “Wattstax”, though the film was nominated in the Golden Globes’ short-lived Documentary category, losing to “Visions of Eight“, an anthology film chronicling the ’72 Olympics (Coincidentally, “Visions” and “Wattstax” were both produced by David Wolper). For the record: the Oscars gave their Best Documentary award to “The Great American Cowboy”, a film about rodeos.

Other notes 

  • Like Stax, “Wattstax” was notable for its behind-the-scenes integration. Of its four producers, two were White (David Wolper and Mel Stuart) and two were Black (Al Bell and Larry Shaw). Although Mel Stuart is the sole credited director, Stax’s VP of Publicity Larry Shaw helped co-direct and guide the final film. At the insistence of Stax, 90% of the film crew (as well as a majority of the security team at the Los Angels Memorial Coliseum) were Black. This experience allowed several of the Black crew-members to join Hollywood’s traditionally closed-off unions.
  • Fun Fact: “Wattstax” director Mel Stuart helmed “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” two years earlier. While it may seem that “Wattstax” is the outlier in Stuart’s filmography, it’s actually “Wonka”. Stuart’s film career was primarily in documentaries.
  • Among the people interviewed throughout the film is Ted Lange, five years away from his breakthrough role as Isaac your bartender on “The Love Boat”. Lange was primarily a stage actor whose film career was just getting started when he appeared in “Wattstax”.
  • For the curious, I counted four White people in attendance at Wattstax (not counting staff or people in scenes outside of the concert).
  • “Wattstax” obviously pairs well with fellow NFR film “Felicia“, the documentary that was filmed in Watts shortly before the 1965 riots. Together, these two films paint a refreshingly optimistic portrait of the neighborhood.
  • The concert gets going with the “National Anthem” (in which the audience remains seated, at least according to this edit). The mood quickly livens up when Reverend Jesse Jackson takes the stage to perform his poem “I am Somebody”, followed by Kim Weston’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the “Black National Anthem”). I actually started tearing up at this. It was thrilling to watch a community so fully embrace a performance.
  • One of the first performances outside of the concert comes from singing group The Emotions. Before their larger success in the disco era, The Emotions were on Stax’s label, and are seen here performing “Peace Be Still” in a local church. Man, if more R&B groups performed at my church I would have paid a lot more attention.
  • Shoutout to The Staple Singers, who now make two appearances on the NFR (they also perform in “The Last Waltz“). They’re tied with Jean Harlow!
  • My sympathy to the Bar-Kays, who perform their entire set with the setting sun directly in their eyes. They must have picked the short straw.
  • Little Milton performs his song “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” at a train station near Watts Towers in front of a literal garbage fire. Who did he piss off?
  • As a White male I am, of course, grossly unqualified to discuss any of the complex issues presented in this film regarding Black life in America. As someone who has previously dated a few Black women, however, I can confirm that the quote “A Black woman is always two steps ahead of her man” is 100% accurate.
  • Rufus Thomas has one of the film’s most memorable sets, in which he encourages the crowd to come out onto the football field and “Do The Funky Chicken”, only to learn that the audience is not allowed on the field and quickly encourages the crowd to go back into the stands. Also, with his matching pink suit, shorts, and cape – as well as his white mid-calf boots – Thomas gets my vote for Best Dressed.
  • Also notable during Thomas’ set: two men in the crowd doing what I’m pretty sure is the Rerun dance from “What’s Happening!!” Fred Berry is listed as an uncredited dancing man in the “Wattstax” IMDb page, but I couldn’t find any other source that could confirm this.
  • Richard Pryor’s commentary throughout is essentially his various stand-up routines on race relations in America presented as if he’s speaking off-the-cuff at a bar. True to Pryor’s comedy stylings, there’s a lot of really funny material, none of which I feel comfortable quoting here.
  • As the sun sets on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, things start getting sexy with Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right”. It’s a soulful, tantalizing live performance, even if I will forever associate that song with “A Very Brady Sequel“.
  • And then we get to the man himself, Isaac Hayes. 1972 was a great year for Hayes’ career, having won two Grammys and an Oscar for his work on “Shaft” a few months before headlining Wattstax. You are watching a man at the peak of his career. And on top of everything, the Wattstax concert was on Hayes’ 30th birthday!
  • Side note about Isaac Hayes’ performance: Prior to the film’s release, Stax was sued by MGM for Hayes’ performances of “Theme from ‘Shaft'” and “Soulsville”, which both appeared in “Shaft” and therefore exclusively owned by MGM for the next five years. While both songs were allowed to be seen in the film’s premiere, the general release version features Hayes singing “Rolling Down a Mountainside“, which he shot after the concert for the film.

Legacy 

  • Over 112,000 people attended the Wattstax concert, making it one of the largest gatherings of African-Americans in history (second only to the 1963 March on Washington).
  • While Wattstax the concert was a success, “Wattstax” the film didn’t fare as well. Despite its Golden Globe nomination and screening at Cannes, “Wattstax” didn’t receive a wide theatrical release, only gaining a small cult following from subsequent TV and home video releases. The film’s initial disappointment, mixed with several mismanagement issues, led to Stax declaring bankruptcy in 1975. Currently, the Stax records catalog is owned by Concord Relations, who have revived the brand for reissues as well as new releases by their R&B artists.
  • “Wattstax” starting getting rediscovered and reappraised following the film’s 30th anniversary restoration in 2003, with Isaac Hayes’ original performances intact. This restored version played the Sundance Film Festival, and a companion documentary about the concert aired on PBS, helping revive interest in both concert and movie.
  • According to Al Bell, it was co-producer David Wolper’s experience with the predominantly Black creatives of “Wattstax” that inspired him to produce “Roots”, the 1977 TV miniseries that is still a benchmark in Black representation in pop culture.

Listen to This: The only “Wattstax” artists featured on the National Recording Registry are The Staple Singers, Albert King, and Isaac Hayes. Bonus shoutout: The Bar-Kays are sampled on De La Soul’s album “3 Feet High and Rising“. The NRR also includes recordings of “Life Every Voice and Sing” via two recordings by, respectively, Manhattan Harmony Four and Melba Moore and Friends.

#630) Grease (1978)

#630) Grease (1978)

OR “Fast Times at Rydell High”

Directed by Randal Kleiser

Written by Bronte Woodard. Adaptation by Allan Carr. Based on the stage musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Original songs by Jacobs and Casey. Additional songs by Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon.

Class of 2020 

The Plot: As the school-year commences at Rydell High in fall 1958, senior Danny Zuko (John Travolta) regales his greaser gang the T-Birds about an Australian girl named Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) that he had a summer fling with. Shortly thereafter Danny learns that Sandy has enrolled at Rydell and has been taken under the wing of the Pink Ladies, an all-female greaser gang led by Rizzo (Stockard Channing). What follows throughout the year is the hormone-fueled Will They/Won’t They world of teenagers, mixed with a nostalgic caricature of the 1950s and a whole lotta songs.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “tuneful, loving tribute to 1950s America – perhaps more romanticized than accurate”. Ah, there’s that backhanded praise I’ve missed from these write-ups. The “energetically directed” work of Randal Kleiser is highlighted, as is the film’s ongoing influence in pop culture.

But Does It Really?: Since this blog’s inception, “Grease” has been my Evelyn Beatrice Hall movie: I disapprove of what it says, but I will defend to the death its right to be in the National Film Registry. Admittedly the musical numbers are a lot of fun, and the movie does a good job of opening up the play, but this film’s pros are easily bogged down by its lethargic pacing and off-putting characterizations. Still, you can get away with a lot as long as the songs are catchy, and “Grease” can still smooth over the rough patches when it needs to. While I don’t have the nostalgic love for this movie most people have, I understand I am in the minority, and “Grease” continues to be a popular and iconic film over 40 years later. With its rightful (and long overdue) NFR induction, “Grease” is still the word – or at least a word.

Shout Outs: Among the plethora of ’50s pop culture referenced throughout are NFR films “From Here to Eternity“, “Rebel Without a Cause“, “The Ten Commandments“, and “Ben-Hur“.

Everybody Gets One: Born in England and raised in Australia, Olivia Newton-John found success as a singer in her teen years. By the early ’70s Olivia had found worldwide acclaim with her singles “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow”. Newton-John was cast as Sandy in “Grease” thanks to her manager Alan Carr, who happened to be co-producing the film. Uncertain of her acting talents, Olivia signed on after a successful screen test with John Travolta, and the Chicagoan Sandy Dumbrowski became the Australian Sandy Olsson. After a lifetime of music and humanitarian efforts, Olivia Newton-John died earlier this year at the age of 73.

Title Track: Director Randal Kleiser commissioned a title song that fit the ’50s pastiche, but it was vetoed by Allan Carr, who opted for Barry Gibb’s disco-infused composition with Frankie Valli on lead vocals. Kleiser hated this version, though it did become a chart-topper in its own right.

Seriously, Oscars?: The biggest hit of 1978, “Grease” only received one Oscar nomination: Best Original Song for “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, which lost to “Last Dance” from “Thank God It’s Friday”.

Other notes 

  • Based on co-author Jim Jacobs’ teen years, the original “Grease” stage show premiered in Chicago in 1971. This version had a completely different score, and was far cruder and more vulgar. A revised version premiered off-Broadway in 1972 before quickly transferring to Broadway and playing over 3300 performances by decade’s end. The film rights were originally acquired by animator Ralph Bakshi (of “Fritz the Cat” fame) with the plan of making “Grease” an animated film. After Bakshi’s option lapsed in 1976, Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr snatched up the rights. To create a broader appeal, they moved the show’s setting from urban Chicago to a suburban anytown, toned down the overall raunchiness, and reshuffled the song list. They also hired John Travolta – star of TV’s “Welcome Back Kotter” and a replacement Doody on stage – to play Danny, who in turn recommended his “Boy in the Plastic Bubble” director Randal Kleiser to helm. (Side note: Kleiser had previously directed the wonderful NFR short “Peege“)
  • Shame on Fine Arts Films, which did the animated opening credits, not only for an unnecessarily salacious shot of Sandy in her nightgown, but also for the grotesquely inaccurate Stockard Channing caricature. This is not what I expect from the team that brought us the animated opening for “The Carol Burnett Show”.
Gah! Why would you do this to her? Did she lose a bet?
  • Much has been made about how no one playing a high-schooler in this movie is age-appropriate (the main cast ranged in age from 21 to 33!). Most of the female cast adhere to what I call the “Ponytail Stratagem”: Adult actors automatically look like teenagers if they put their hair up in a ponytail or pigtails. If it worked for Laurie’s friends in “Halloween” it can work here too.
  • “Summer Nights” is one of those songs that is lovely and infectious as long as you don’t pay attention to the lyrics or think about them too hard. “Did she put up a fight?” Do you hear what you’re saying?
  • Practically every adult actor in this movie has some sort of ’50s nostalgia attached to them. Eve Arden previously played a high school teacher on “Our Miss Brooks”, Dody Goodman was a regular on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show”, and Sid Caesar pioneered the sketch show format with “Your Show of Shows”.
  • Despite being a theater kid, I missed out on “Grease” (my drama teacher hated musicals), and never saw the film until I reached adulthood. I imagine “Grease” goes over best with younger kids who can imagine that this is what high school will be like. Although given some of the racier lyrics and subject matter, I don’t know why anyone would let their kids watch this.
  • There’s a surprising amount of shoutouts to Annette Funicello throughout this movie. I didn’t realize she went over so well with high-schoolers. This is especially weird considering that in 1958 she was still a Mouseketeer and her “Beach Party” teen movie era was still about five years away.
  • Shoutout to the Pink Ladies: Stockard Channing (future Oscar nominee and First Lady), Didi Conn (who I remember best from “Shining Time Station”), Dinah Manoff (future Tony winner and daughter of Lee Grant), and Jamie Donnelly (the only cast member from Broadway to reprise their role). They really hold this movie together, and offer a lot more than their hammy T-Bird counterparts.
  • “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was written specifically for Olivia Newton-John, who had it in her contract that she receive a solo number. The song was filmed at the end of production, which explains why Olivia is the only actor in the scene.
  • During my viewing, I noted myself having a similar experience to the one I had while watching “Saturday Night Fever” for this blog. Obvious Travolta connection aside, both movies are well shot, directed, choreographed, etc., but have a veneer of toxic masculinity that ultimately dampens my enjoyment. But of course, “Grease” is not a museum artifact to be dissected; it’s a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed. So I guess I’ll put the over-analysis on hold and just enjoy the singin’ and dancin’.
  • Speaking of enjoyable musical numbers, “Greased Lightnin'” is a lot of fun. The dancing is some of the best in the movie; I got exhausted just watching it. As for the rundown Ford Deluxe being worked on during the number: I’m convinced that Kenickie got it cheap because Phil Silvers almost drowned in it.
  • If something looks off at the Frosty Palace diner, you’re not seeing things. The set featured large advertisements for Coca-Cola, but the producers made an endorsement deal with Pepsi during post-production. Rather than reshoot the diner scenes, Randal Kleiser opted to blur out the Coke ads, which is pretty jarring to say the least. This blurriness was digitally replaced with a Pepsi ad for the film’s 2018 Blu-Ray.
  • I’m surprised Danny didn’t think to take Sandy to that other ’50s diner he likes going to. They have a twist contest every night and one of the waiters looks like Steve Buscemi!
  • The dance in the gym is the film’s highlight for me, maybe because everyone stops being horny jerks to each other and just starts dancing. Side note: No offense to Edd Byrnes, seen here as “National Bandstand” host Vince Fontaine, but he’s the only one of the film’s “Special Guest Stars” I didn’t recognize on sight. “77 Sunset Strip” never made the rerun rounds when I was growing up.
  • “Sandy” – Danny’s number at the drive-in – has the best ending, in which Danny sulks in front of a movie screen showcasing the “Variety Show” snipe with a hot dog jumping into a bun. I just love that a group of professionals had to time out the exact rhythm of the number to climax with a wiener joke. This almost makes the movie for me. Almost.
  • For some reason I thought Stockard Channing didn’t like being associated with “Grease”, but there are plenty of interviews where she speaks highly of the experience, and continues to be amazed by the film’s ongoing legacy. Side note: Channing successfully lobbied to keep Rizzo’s solo number, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, in the film, and it’s a nice quiet moment in the midst of all this nonsense.
  • The original version of “Grease” was a parody of popular teen movie tropes. Case in point: Having the strait-laced good girl conform to her greaser boyfriend instead of the other way around, as seen in “You’re the One That I Want”. You can’t blame a modern audience for not getting the joke. But that’s what me and my chronic contextualizing are here for!
  • Despite only being 110 minutes, this movie seems to go on forever. At one point I thought I was experiencing this school year in real time! The last day of school carnival finale has two musical numbers, resolutions to every plot thread, and then the inexplicable final shot of the car flying off into the sky? I’m know I’m taking this all way too seriously, but what is happening?

Legacy 

  • Paramount originally planned to release “Grease” in a handful of theaters in Chicago before a gradual roll-out, but the success of “Saturday Night Fever” and Travolta’s subsequent rising star gave the studio more faith in the film. “Grease” would go on to become the highest-grossing film of 1978, and was the highest-grossing movie musical ever until being surpassed by “Beauty and the Beast” 13 years later.
  • Everyone’s career got a boost from “Grease”. Although John Travolta has continued his movie stardom for the last four decades, Olivia Newton-John’s film career more or less petered out with “Xanadu” (although she and Travolta did reunite for 1983’s “Two of a Kind”).
  • Plans for a sequel (at one point titled “Greasier”) began shortly after the first film’s release, and after a few false starts “Grease 2” hit theaters in 1982. Set four years after the first movie, “Grease 2” starred a young Michelle Pfeiffer and was a critical and financial failure.
  • The original stage version has had multiple revivals since 1978, including two on Broadway that have attempted to interlope songs written for the film into the show proper. In addition, “Grease” is a staple of regional and high school theaters (except mine). Somewhat ironically for a show about teenagers, the school version tones down the lewdness even further than the film did!
  • After a string of live musicals on NBC in the mid-2010s, Fox beat the Peacock network at its own game with 2016’s “Grease Live!” With an all-star roster of talent and a live studio audience to play off of, “Grease Live!” exceeded all expectations. Even I admit to enjoying it!
  • It’s hard to parody something that’s already a parody, but “Grease” has gotten its share of skewering over the years. I’m partial to this musical number from an early “Family Guy”.
  • And finally, we are apparently getting not one, but TWO prequel series to “Grease”. One focusing on Danny and Sandy’s summer together – “Summer Lovin'”- was announced in 2019 but seems to have stalled. The other – “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” – has been filmed and will premiere some time next year. WHO IS ASKING FOR THESE!?

#629) Jurassic Park (1993)

#629) Jurassic Park (1993)

OR “Dino Might”

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Based on the novel by Crichton.

Class of 2018 

The Plot: Paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and his partner Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are invited by the wealthy and eccentric John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to give a safety certification for his unopened Jurassic Park, a theme park showcasing real-life dinosaurs cloned from preserved DNA samples. Joined by mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), the scientists’ tour sparks a debate about the ethics of cloning an extinct species. Meanwhile, disgruntled Hammond employee Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) deactivates the park’s security system to steal dinosaur embryos for a rival company, allowing the dinosaurs to roam beyond their secured paddocks. What follows is some classic Spielberg action with groundbreaking visual effects.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “the epitome of the summer blockbuster”, praising its “skill, flair [and] popcorn-chomping excitement”.

But Does It Really?: Surprisingly, I don’t have a lot to say about “Jurassic Park” other than it’s good, it’s very good. “Jurassic Park” is Spielberg at the height of his power, combining the primal action of “Jaws” with some of the more philosophical themes of his ’80s filmography, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of film special effects and in doing so changing them forever. 30 years on, “Jurassic Park” has more than left an indelible mark on film history and pop culture, and its inclusion into the NFR was a long time coming.

Shout Outs: Quick references to “King Kong” and “Gertie the Dinosaur“, and keep an eye out of a clip from “Jaws” playing on Nedry’s computer screen. Bonus shout-out: Thanks to the logo of Spielberg’s Amblin company, the last moment of the end credits features E.T.

Everybody Gets One: New Zealand actor Sam Neill was starting to make a name for himself in America when he was cast as Alan Grant mere weeks before shooting began (William Hurt and Harrison Ford had turned it down). Indie darling Laura Dern was Spielberg’s first choice to play Ellie Sattler based on her work in “Smooth Talk” and “Rambling Rose”; “Jurassic Park” was her first major studio film. Director Richard Attenborough returned to acting after a 14 year hiatus to play John Hammond. Attenborough had previously won two Oscars for his 1982 epic “Gandhi”, beating out – among others – Spielberg’s “E.T.”, which even Attenborough conceded was the better movie.

Wow, That’s Dated: Thankfully not too much of this movie feels dated, besides the early ’90s Macintosh computers used throughout. I also love the moment where Lex gets very excited about the Jeep’s touchscreen technology. No 12-year-old would be impressed by that today.

Seriously, Oscars?: The same year Spielberg swept the Oscars with “Schindler’s List“, “Jurassic Park” went three-for-three, winning Best Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects. The Visual Effects recipients delivered one of my favorite Oscar speeches of all time, with all four of them giving their thanks simultaneously at the podium.

Other notes 

  • While collaborating on a potential screenplay set in a hospital (which would later evolve into the TV series “ER”), Michael Crichton told Steven Spielberg his idea for a novel based on his screenplay about a grad student who clones a dinosaur (and no, it was not called “Billy and the Cloneasaurus“). By the time “Jurassic Park” was published in November 1990, Universal had bought the film rights with Spielberg set to direct (among those they outbid were directors Tim Burton, Richard Donner, and Joe Dante). Spielberg got “Schindler’s List” greenlight at Universal on the condition he made “Jurassic” first, and he supervised the “Jurassic” post-production via video conferencing while filming “Schindler” in Austria.
  • For the film’s dinosaurs, Spielberg turned once again to effects powerhouse ILM, who started creating life-sized animatronics as well as stop-motion models. Originally, computer graphics would be used to enhance the stop-motion dinosaurs, but ILM’s computer animation team believed all the dinosaur model work could be done with computers. A skeptical Spielberg changed his mind upon seeing an early test animation, which also prompted stop-motion supervisor Phil Tippett to declare “I think I just became extinct”, a line that found its way into the final film.
  • Spielberg starts things off with his trademark “People Looking Meaningfully at Something Off-Camera”. To quote Liz Lemon, “Oh no, you start with that?” Also, I forgot that the first casualty in this movie is a person of color. Come on Steven. Why don’t you have him wear a red tunic while you’re at it?
  • Alan’s first scene is the opposite of a “pet the dog” scene, in which he tells an annoying kid how a raptor would kill him. Just great.
  • Newman! Wayne Knight was cast based on his work in “Basic Instinct”, and plays the kind of obnoxious antagonist he excelled at. That being said, I always enjoyed him playing against-type as Officer Don on “3rd Rock from the Sun”.
  • I’ve realized I don’t talk a lot about John Williams on this blog, despite chronicling all the major hits of his film career. He’s so good, he falls into that category of “He’s always good”. For “Jurassic Park”, his score perfectly encapsulates the sense of wonder and excitement that would no doubt be present if dinosaurs were to actually reappear. Williams’ music does its job so effectively you just naturally accept it as the emotional truth of the scene.
  • If you want to cast an actor who can make scientific mumbo jumbo sound interesting, you could do worse than Jeff Goldblum. His performance here is 90% quirks and stammering, and while it’s a bit distracting, it’s also highly memorable. You can’t say the line “Life finds a way” without emulating Goldblum’s “uh-uh” in the middle.
  • “Jurassic Park” is one of the few movies I can think of whose poster logo and font are present within the universe of the movie. And who says corporate synergy ruined the movies?
  • The Mr. D.N.A. sequence was created especially for the film as a way for Spielberg to cram in all of the novel’s exposition in the shortest (and most entertaining) way possible. The segment was directed by Bob Kurtz, fresh off his animated opening credits for “City Slickers” and “Honeymoon in Vegas”.
  • Remember when you could have an extended ethics debate in the middle of your action movie and still be the biggest moneymaker of the year? Good times.
  • Of course, that’s Samuel L. Jackson in one of his final secondary roles before “Pulp Fiction” changed everything. He even has a catchphrase: “Hold onto your butts”, which I’m only now realizing may be a reference to his character’s constant smoking.
  • I love that they actually got Richard Kiley to be the on-ride narrator. Truly, no expense was spared.
  • Maybe the most amazing feat this movie pulls off: The first major action sequence doesn’t happen until an hour into the movie! The first half of “Jurassic Park” is the equivalent of eating all your vegetables (plot exposition and moral arguments) before getting to gorge yourself on all the dessert you want.
  • Shoutout to Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards for being two of the least annoying child actors in film history, and one of the last in a long line of Spielberg’s “kids in peril” trope. Side note: How did I forget that one of the kids is named Timmy? Was Crichton watching “Lassie” on Nick at Nite when he wrote this?
  • I know this isn’t a hot take, but man alive those special effects are so damn good. The combination of CG dinosaurs, life-sized animatronics, and stop-motion miniatures is so seamless, there’s a point where you stop guessing how they did it and just accept that dinosaurs are real. A+ to everyone involved.
  • Every scene I remember from this movie happens in the second hour. The T-Rex/Jeep chase (“Must go faster”), Goldblum’s weird open-shirt shot, Muldoon’s “Clever girl”, etc. I imagine a lot of kids my age fast-forwarded through the first half of their VHS copies.
  • If I may allow myself one nitpick: As a theme park fan I’m upset Hammond says Disneyland opened in 1956 (a factual error also present in the film’s screenplay). That being said, whenever I watch a video essay that begins “When Disneyland opened in July 1955…” I always say “nothing worked” out loud.
  • Laura Dern spends most of the movie being amused or scared by her surroundings, but at least she gets to do a little action near the end, and is definitely doing her own stunts in a few shots. Get it, Laura Dern!
  • The raptor chase scene in the kitchen is wonderfully thrilling, and highlights the film’s thesis in a nutshell: If dinosaurs were to come back, human survival would rest on our ability to adapt and evolve.
  • “Jurassic Park” is the only movie I can think of that ends with a Deus T-Rex Machina. Also, due to the shot of the dinosaur skeleton being destroyed, this movie technically has the same ending as “Bringing Up Baby“.
  • Still, not the worst experience I’ve ever had at a theme park.

Legacy 

  • “Jurassic Park” opened in June 1993, and by October had surpassed “E.T.” as the highest-grossing film of all time. In the ensuing 30 years, “Jurassic Park” has been celebrated by filmmakers, critics, and audiences as one of the best modern action movies.
  • The film’s biggest impact was on the industry’s seemingly overnight switch from optical effects to computers, with every major director seeing the evolution as a chance to let their imagination run wild. Peter Jackson was inspired to consider a film adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings”, Stanley Kubrick revived his pet project “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” (which would, somewhat ironically, ultimately be directed by Spielberg), and George Lucas was convinced the technology could finally bring his “Star Wars” prequel trilogy to life.
  • The success of “Jurassic Park” saw a surge in the number of Michael Crichton novels that received film adaptations. Within five years of “Jurassic Park” we got film versions of “Rising Sun”, “Disclosure”, “Congo”, and “Sphere”. Crichton also co-wrote and co-produced the 1996 film “Twister”. Who knew?
  • Talks of a “Jurassic Park” sequel (both in book and film form) began immediately after the film’s success. Crichton’s “The Lost World” (his first ever sequel book) was published in September 1995, with Spielberg agreeing to helm the film adaptation shortly thereafter. While a box office hit upon its release in May 1997, critics and audiences (as well as Spielberg in hindsight) weren’t as enthused about “The Lost World”. A third film, 2001’s “Jurassic Park III, saw even more diminishing returns.
  • Plans for a fourth “Jurassic Park” languished in development hell for the better part of the 2000s, with Spielberg rejecting draft after draft. By the early 2010s, an idea for a legacy sequel that would serve as the starting point of a new trilogy was greenlit, becoming 2015’s “Jurassic World”. As with the original trilogy, “World” was an instant hit, while its sequels (with increasing amounts of nostalgic fan service) failed to connect.
  • Among the “Jurassic Park” spin-offs were the inevitable toys and video games, but my favorite was “Jurassic Park: The Ride” at Universal Studios, which has unfortunately been replaced in California with a “Jurassic World’ layover.
  • “Jurassic Park” is also responsible for what has been dubbed “The Jurassic Generation”: the group of kids who became lifelong dinosaur fanatics thanks to the success of this film. Most of my peers are in this group, though I missed out due to my chronic habit of ignoring practically every major trend of my childhood. Hence the classic film blog.
  • Did you know that there was a “Jurassic Park” animated series on Netflix? I sure didn’t. “Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous” centers around a group of kids at a dinosaur summer camp where – and you’re not going to believe this – something goes wrong.
  • But perhaps the greatest impact the original “Jurassic Park” film has had on our popular culture: Memes! So many memes. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorites.

Further Viewing: Easily one of my top 5 favorite YouTube videos ever has a “Jurassic Park” connection, and it makes me laugh out loud every time.

#628) The Dark Knight (2008)

#628) The Dark Knight (2008)

OR “Thank You for Joking”

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer. Based on the character “Batman” by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

Class of 2020 

The Plot: Gotham City’s resident billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is secretly Batman, a crimefighting vigilante superhero. As seen in a previous film, Wayne becomes Batman to end Gotham’s crime wave and mobster influence, and “The Dark Knight” finds him continuing that fight, this time against new criminal the Joker (Heath Ledger). As the Joker goes on a killing spree in an effort to coax Batman to reveal his true identity, Batman enlists the help of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) Gotham’s new District Attorney and “White Knight” who happens to be dating Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Joker’s reign of terror not only threatens to unbalance the law and order of Gotham City, but simultaneously pushes Batman’s morals to their breaking point. Holy dilemma, Batman!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a visual feast of memorable set pieces, screenwriting flair, and characters and situations imbued with a soul and a conscience.” Bale and Ledger’s “now legendary” performances are hailed, and the write-up also unnecessarily reminds us that the film’s themes of “fear and dystopian chaos resonates eerily well in the pandemic havoc of 2020.” You’re not helping, NFR!

But Does It Really?: Despite the relatively short timespan of the superhero movie era we’re living in, “The Dark Knight” has already proven itself to be one of the highlights. The Nolan Batman films successfully distanced themselves from previous Batman adaptations with its darker, grittier take, and “The Dark Knight” in particular showed that the genre could successfully focus on larger, more realistic themes rather than simply non-stop action and over-the-top aesthetics. Aided by top-notch performances and fresh storytelling, “The Dark Knight” has already solidified its place in pop-culture history, becoming one of the rare sequels to join the NFR.

Shout Outs: Three of the Joker’s goons in the opening bank robbery share their code names with Snow White’s dwarfs: Happy, Grumpy, and Dopey.

Everybody Gets One: As with many a recent NFR entry, a majority of this film’s cast are making their NFR debut. Among the noteworthy: returning cast members Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Cillian Murphy, and new cast-members Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal, the latter replacing Katie Holmes from the first film when she opted to make “Mad Money” instead (and that should be making the NFR any day now. Wait for it…).

Seriously, Oscars?: After its commanding run at the box office, “The Dark Knight” received eight Oscar nominations, winning two: Sound Editing and a posthumous Supporting Actor trophy for the late Heath Ledger. “Dark Knight” failed to receive a Best Picture nomination, and its omission (along with fellow NFR entry “WALL-E“) is speculated to be the reason the Best Picture category expanded the following year from five to ten contenders.

Before we go any further: A Brief History of Batman!

The Batman (as he was originally called) made his debut in Detective Comics on March 30th, 1939. Created by comic book writers Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman was an immediate hit, and within a year had spun-off into his own comic series, which is still printing to this day. Batman made his film debut in a 1943 adventure serial starring Lewis Wilson. Over the years, Batman’s popularity would be revived by the 1960s TV series with Adam West (which, thanks to its plethora of Classic Hollywood guest stars, gets mentioned on this blog with some regularity), and again in 1989 with the big-budget Tim Burton film starring Michael Keaton that returned the franchise to its darker roots. While 1989’s “Batman” was a massive success, its sequels quickly regressed into the kind of ’60s campiness the first film intentionally avoided. Following the lackluster performance of 1997’s “Batman and Robin”, Warner Bros. put the franchise on hold, and met with several directors for a potential reboot. Christopher Nolan pitched a more realistic origin story, which became 2005’s “Batman Begins”. The film was a surprise hit, and Warner Bros. commissioned a sequel, with Nolan opting to continue the Joker teaser from his film’s finale and expand upon his more grounded approach to the source material.

And now back to our blog post already in progress.

Other notes 

  • Prior to watching “The Dark Knight” for this blog, I re-watched “Batman Begins” for the first time in 16 years. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch “Begins” before “The Dark Knight”, I wouldn’t call it required viewing as long as you have a general knowledge of the Batman mythology. By comparison, “Begins” is a lighter fare than “Dark Knight”, with characters still managing to throw in a quip or two. But while “Begins” is mostly set-up to the world and characters, “Dark Knight” has the luxury of being its own adventure, and can hit the ground running with minimal exposition.
  • “The Dark Knight” was the first major studio picture to be filmed in part with HD IMAX cameras. Roughly 20% of the film was shot in the IMAX format, and my viewing included shifts in aspect ratios to highlight these shots. IMAX is reserved mostly for the major action set-pieces and big establishing shots, and the change is not too jarring on a regular TV screen.
  • Throughout the movie, reference is made to Lt. (later Commissioner) Gordon’s Major Crimes Unit, aka the MCU, which is definitely weird to hear in the middle of a DC film.
  • Despite the film’s dark tone, I appreciate the occasional injection of humor. Nothing too distracting, just some gentle ribbing between characters that reads more as camaraderie than clever writing. Additionally, the film wisely avoids the kind of meta-humor most modern superhero films feel obligated to shoehorn in. The one subtle exception is Bruce’s desire to make the Batsuit more flexible, a reference to Christian Bale’s criticism (as well as several previous Batmans) about the trademark cowl’s lack of peripheral vision.
  • Heath Ledger’s Joker is a force to be reckoned with. You can’t take your eyes off of Ledger when he’s on-screen, taking the character beyond the unhinged theatricality of a Cesar Romero or a Jack Nicholson and making his Joker pure anarchy incarnate. The extra stroke of genius is that we never learn the Joker’s real identity or his motivations; he’s just a criminal who wants to leave chaos in his wake. And for the record: Rumors that Heath Ledger’s sudden death was fueled by his intense character preparation for this film have been repeatedly debunked by Ledger’s family, as well as several cast and crew-members, who recalled Ledger “having a blast” playing the Joker.
  • I do wonder sometimes just how much you have to pay the likes of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to appear in your superhero movie with not a hell of a lot to do. Freeman gets his quick scenes as Batman’s answer to James Bond’s Q, and Caine has a few solid moments as Alfred the butler. Given the amount of lines involving tactical weaponry, I kept expecting Alfred to remind Bruce “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
  • In addition to the main cast, there are a ton of notable actors in supporting turns and cameos. Anthony Michael Hall – far removed from his “Breakfast Club” days – shows up as the scariest lowlife imaginable: a cable news host. Eric Roberts appears as mobster Sal Maroni, and his NFR presence currently eludes his younger sister Julia. The most famous bit player in the bunch is Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) as the partygoer who stands up to the Joker. A lifelong Batman fan, Senator Leahy has made cameos in severals Batman film and TV projects, donating his payment to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, where he read comic books as a child.
  • The movie’s other great joke: “How do the defendants plead?”
  • I’m digging this movie’s whole vibe, with the Joker forcing Batman (and Harvey Dent) to consider what happens when your strong code of ethics put others in danger. It’s very “We’re not so different, you and I”, and inspired such later movie villains as Killmonger from “Black Panther”.
  • The Batmobile chase through the city is a highlight for sure. My one question: with a chase through the streets of Chicago (subbing for Gotham) that takes a detour through a shopping center, when did this movie become “The Blues Brothers”?
  • One of my favorite tropes in all media is when non-American actors attempt an American accent. English actors Gary Oldman and Christian Bale have theirs down pat, although Oldman’s tends to disappear when Lt. Gordon is yelling. And while Australian actor Heath Ledger’s accent is a bit out-there, it works for the Joker’s eccentricities.
  • [Spoilers] Anyone who knows the history of Batman knows that Harvey Dent is destined to become the villain Two-Face. The only mildly-dated aspect of this film is the CG rendering on the burnt half of Aaron Eckhart’s face. Nolan was adamant about doing as many practical effects as possible in the film, though conceded that attempting Two-Face’s disfigurement with makeup would just add to his face, rather than remove from (Dent is a burn victim, after all). The CG effect isn’t awful by any stretch, but an HD screen reveals some of its rough edges.
  • As we ramp up to the finale and the film has more spinning plates, we kind of lose focus of Batman himself. Though this is somewhat befitting of the film’s theme of escalation: there’s a point where Gotham’s corruption and moral quandaries go beyond Batman. “Batman Beyond”, if you will.
  • [Spoilers] In true “Empire Strikes Back” fashion, “Dark Knight” takes the world of the first film and plunges it into darkness. This includes the cliffhanger finale, in which despite the capture of the Joker and the death of Harvey Dent, nothing is truly resolved and Batman has become a fugitive from the Gotham police. Hats off to Nolan et al for still making this a satisfying ending, and in the most belated “Title Track/Take a Shot” this blog has ever had, Gordon finally calls Batman “a dark knight” as the movie’s curtain line.
  • “The Dark Knight” is dedicated to Heath Ledger (who died six months before the film’s release), as well as Conway Wickliffe, one of the film’s special effects technicians who died in a car accident during production.

Legacy 

  • “The Dark Knight” hit theaters in July 2008, and quickly started breaking every box office record in sight. Although it never displaced “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie of all time, it was the highest-grossing film of the year, and surpassed the ’89 “Batman” as the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time (displaced by Marvel’s “The Avengers” four years later). Since then, “The Dark Knight” has routinely been hailed as one of the best superhero movies, best sequels, and best films of the 21st century (so far).
  • Although initially hesitant to make another sequel, Christopher Nolan relented with 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, which was a successful film in its own right and largely considered a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. “Rises” continued the proud tradition of English actors doing weird accents, with Tom Hardy’s genuinely off-putting Bane.
  • “The Dark Knight” has maintained a spot in pop culture, no doubt in part to Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic take on the Joker (“Why so serious?”). Among the film’s oft-quoted aphorisms are “Some men just want to watch the world burn” and “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Although the internet phrase “We live in a society” is associated with Heath Ledger’s Joker, he never actually says it in the film.
  • Following the Nolan trilogy, Batman returned to the big screen in a series of films starring Ben Affleck. The Batman franchise was rebooted yet again in 2022 with “The Batman” starring Robert Pattinson, which was an immediate hit with a sequel on the way.
  • Shoutout to the other post-“Dark Knight” Batman films: “The Lego Movie” and “The Lego Batman Movie”, in which Will Arnett shows us the fun side of the Caped Crusader without delving into his tragic backstory.

Further Viewing: One of my favorite YouTube essayists is Patrick H Willems (though I confess to skimming past his videos’ coconut subplot). Willems has several videos chronicling the mythos of Batman on film, but I recommend this one in which he accurately dissects why Batman’s sidekick Robin so rarely shows up in these films.

#627) Titanic (1997)

#627) Titanic (1997)

OR “The Looooooove Booooooat”

Directed & Written by James Cameron

Class of 2017

As always, a reminder that this post is about the film “Titanic”, and not the historical event depicted. There’s a ton of information out there for the curious, with its Britannica entry being a good place to start.

The Plot: In 1996, an expedition team surveys the remains of the passenger liner RMS Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg in April 1912. After an unsuccessful attempt to recover the valuable “Heart of the Ocean” diamond necklace, researcher Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) comes into contact with Titanic survivor Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who recounts her experience aboard the ship. In 1912, Rose (Kate Winslet) boards the ship with her socialite family and wealthy yet obnoxious fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Disappointed with the direction her life is going, Rose meets Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a starving artist and third-class passenger. The two are attracted to each other, but are aware of the class difference that separates them. Over the course of two days, Jack and Rose fall in love, and Rose decides to start a new life with Jack once the ship arrives in New York. When the ship is struck by an iceberg, Jack and Rose’s newfound love is put to the ultimate test.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a cultural touchstone of the era” with “spectacular sweeping scenes”. They also quote David Ansen’s Newsweek write-up in which he called the film “big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking.”

But Does It Really?:  Somehow in this film’s quarter-century existence, I have managed to not see “Titanic” in full until this viewing (Though I’ve seen bits and pieces over the years). All I could think while I was watching was “James Cameron you bastard, you did it.” All filmmaking is alchemy, and while no one film has the perfect recipe, “Titanic” is pretty damn close. Cameron somehow managed to have his cake and eat it too; combining a historical epic with a disaster action movie, a deep-sea documentary, and a star-crossed romance, and making it all work spectacularly. “Titanic” has been parodied to death, and has now endured multiple generations of backlash (both historical and critical), but the film continues to be an impressive feat of moviemaking, and possibly the last classic Hollywood epic.

Everybody Gets One: Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were young actors starting to get noticed when “Titanic” came their way. Although both had recently received their first Oscar nods (DiCaprio for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Winslet for “Sense and Sensibility”), neither was the first choice for Jack and Rose (names such as Chris O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes were suggested). While DiCaprio had to be persuaded to even audition for Jack, Winslet lobbied aggressively for Rose, and the pair’s instant chemistry sealed the deal. The two actors formed a strong bond during the intensely exhausting shoot, and have stayed close friends ever since.

Wow, That’s Dated: The 1996 prelude dates itself with its giant camcorders and a reference to the Geraldo Rivera/Al Capone TV special. And while Cameron’s depiction of the Titanic sinking was accurate with the information he had at the time, new details have emerged in the ensuing years that have inexplicably enabled critics to declare the film retroactively inaccurate, whatever that means.

Seriously, Oscars?: It wasn’t enough for “Titanic” to make all the money and receive all the acclaim, it had to win all the Oscars too. At the 70th Academy Awards in 1998, “Titanic” lead the pack with 14 nominations (tying “All About Eve” for the most nominations ever), and took home 11 (tying “Ben-Hur” for the most wins ever). The film won Picture, Director, Song for “My Heart Will Go On”, and seven technical categories (also a record for a single film). The “Titanic” steamroll was inevitable, but left little room for other well-received contenders like “Good Will Hunting” and “L.A. Confidential“.

Other notes 

  • James Cameron was inspired to write a movie about the Titanic based on his fascination with the actual shipwreck, as well as a 1992 IMAX movie that featured high-def footage of the wreck. Cameron pitched the film as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic”, and a skeptical 20th Century Fox okayed the film in the hopes of maintaining a good business relationship with Cameron. The underwater sequences of the actual wreck were filmed first (Cameron admits these scenes were the reason he wanted to make the film) while Cameron was concurrently immersing himself in research and scriptwriting.
  • Production on “Titanic” ran from July 1996 to March 1997, and is generally agreed upon to have been an unpleasant experience for everyone. Most of the cast experienced illness from hours in cold water, three stunt performers broke bones, and James Cameron’s dictatorial directing style earned him the moniker “the scariest man in Hollywood”. The film went 30 days over schedule, and when Fox refused to give Cameron more money, Paramount agreed to co-finance the film, ballooning the budget to $200 million (the most expensive movie ever up to that point). With the special effects needing more time to be completed, “Titanic” had its release date pushed from July 1997 to December, prompting speculation that the film would be a disaster.
  • The opening prologue helps a modern, more cynical audience permit itself to enter the romantic world of 1912. Of course it’s lovely to see the late Bill Paxton represented on this list outside of his brief role in “The Terminator“, but the MVP is Gloria Stuart. Long past her heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the 86-year-old Stuart was aged up to play 101, and is an overall gem as older Rose. Also in these bookend scenes is Suzy Amis as Rose’s granddaughter. Amis and James Cameron met during filming, and they’re still married over 20 years later.
  • Dialogue has never been Cameron’s strongest suit as a writer, and the opening of the film is a massive offering of Exposition 101. Cameron, however, more than makes up for this with his visual storytelling, particularly the scale and build up to the Titanic’s launch. You truly get the sense of awe needed to convey the ship’s mightiness, making its demise all the more devastating.
  • Wow, this movie is a murderer’s row of great actors. Among the supporting cast aboard the ship: Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates (as Molly Brown), David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, and Bernard Fox (aka Dr. Bombay from “Bewitched”). There really isn’t a weak link in this chain.
  • Poor Billy Zane. Cal is a short-sighted, one dimensional asshole, and Zane is doing the best with what he’s given. Fun Fact: I met him once. Nice guy.
  • The sparks between Leo and Kate are palpable, and it really does help keep the movie (forgive me) afloat. They’re so good in this I’m even willing to ignore Kate’s not-quite-there American accent and Leo’s ’90s Tiger Beat haircut.
  • The “I’m flying” scene on the ship’s bow is a romantic highpoint (filmed with an actual sunset, no CG or lighting tricks). Although I was well aware of all of this movie’s iconic sequences before this viewing, I had zero knowledge of the earlier scene where Jack teaches Rose how to spit, which is super gross but – thanks to Kate Winslet – actually serves as a set-up to a later payoff.
  • Full disclosure: I was 11 years old when “Titanic” was released on VHS in September 1998, and the parents of a neighborhood friend of mine had a copy. We never got past the first cassette, but we definitely saw the drawing scene and, let’s just say Kate Winslet is an important player in my formative years. On a similar note: I found out years later that Kate Winslet was subjected to a lot of fat-shaming by critics and late night comedians at the time, and all I can say is “How dare you!” Winslet is a stunningly beautiful human, and the skinny model standard of the late ’90s is an impossible (not to mention unhealthy and unnatural) measure for anyone to meet, so everyone lay off!
  • It’s hard not to research a post on “Titanic” the film without slipping into research on Titanic the actual ship. I’ve never been much of a non-pop culture history buff, so all the details about the real Titanic were new to me. The one bit of real Titanic trivia that I found worth noting here: When “Titanic” premiered, seven of the ship’s survivors were still alive. Millvina Dean was the youngest Titanic passenger (2 months old), and the last survivor to pass (May 2009 at age 97). Dean declined an invitation to attend the premiere of “Titanic” which – you know what? Fair.
  • Shoutout to actor Scott G. Anderson, playing Titanic’s real-life lookout Frederick Fleet, who I assume gets a few free drinks whenever anyone recognizes him as the guy who yells “Iceberg right ahead!”
  • Part of my amazement with the film is how much of it is real. Computer effects and detailed models were obviously used for the most epic shots, but there’s a good chunk of this movie that is real people on real sets surrounded by real water. Even more amazing is how many of these scenes are clearly DiCaprio and Winslet doing their own stunt work. Where’s Shelley Winters when you need her?
  • [Spoilers] I remember about 10 years ago when “Titanic” was re-released there was a brouhaha in social media about the floating door Jack and Rose swim to for safety. The theory was that there was enough room for both Jack and Rose on the door, and Jack did not need to sacrifice himself. There was even a whole “Mythbusters” about it. Honestly, the film made it clear to me from the get-go that the door could not support both of them and still float, so I don’t know what everyone got so worked up about. Was there nothing else going on that week?
  • The film’s other most dated aspect: ’90s power ballad “My Heart Will Go On“. James Cameron was initially against having any song in the movie for fear of becoming outdated, so composers James Horner and Will Jennings wrote the song in secret, had Céline Dion record a demo, and waited for Cameron to be in an approachable mood before pitching the idea. Cameron finally relented upon realizing that studio execs – already upset with him for going over-budget – would be pacified at the prospect of the movie spawning a hit song.

Legacy 

  • “Titanic” opened in December 1997, and quickly became a blockbuster hit, staying in theaters for 10 months (!) and surpassing “Jurassic Park” as the highest grossing movie of all time. Everything around the film was also a success: the VHS release was the best selling home video of all time, the soundtrack album reached number one on over two dozen charts around the world, and the companion “Making Of” book was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for several weeks.
  • For my younger readers, I am here to tell you: If you were alive in 1998 you could not escape “Titanic”. It was everywhere. People loved shouting “I’m flying, Jack!” and “I’m the king of the world!” (even James Cameron said the latter in his Oscar speech), and cruise ships had to take extra safety measures to prevent passengers from recreating these moments on their bow (not to mention reiterating the emergency safety measures already in place). There were the obvious parodies (my favorite is the hard-to-find Letterman sketch “Death Boat ’98”), and while they have subsided over the years, “Titanic” has remained a cultural touchstone, especially for those of us with a severe case of ’90s nostalgia.
  • Following the mega-hit sensation of “Titanic”, both its stars and director kept a low-profile. DiCaprio and Winslet opted for independent productions, eventually pivoting to bigger movies (and Oscar wins for, respectively, “The Revenant” and “The Reader”). Cameron’s next projects were deep sea documentaries (including the Titanic wreckage film “Ghosts of the Abyss”) before returning to narrative features with “Avatar”, which – like “Titanic” before it – defied its predicted failure to become the highest grossing film of all time.
  • “Titanic” continued its box office success in 2012, when the film was re-released in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the original sinking. A young naive Twitter was not only unaware that it was a re-release, but also unaware that it was based on a historical event.
  • And finally: “I’m going to sink this bitch.”

Further Viewing: The other countless Titanic movies. Among them: 1953’s “Titanic”, 1958’s “A Night to Remember”, and 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, to name just a few.