First a caveat: I have spent the last five solid hours explaining Trigonometry to someone from Saskatchewan, which is like explaining hygiene to a Frenchman or logic to a teenage girl, so I can’t promise any of the following will be at all coherent.
Like I told you last week, I have seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 movies in the last month. I don’t know how many of them I can get to before Braj (the god of writing) abandons me and I slip into a coma, so we’ll go with a top-down method.
If you’re a serious movie person—and even if you’re not—you’re gonna wanna check out THE AVIATOR. Martin Scorsese has outdone himself in his quest to revere and at the same time demythologize Billionaire-Mogul-all-around-fascinating-but-strange-guy Howard Hughes.
For those of you who don’t know (and surprisingly, it’s a large number), Hughes was at one time the world’s richest man. He came to Hollywood to make the most expensive film of all time (HELL’S ANGELS), and later SCARFACE and others. They laughed at him, until the films made money. Hughes got interested—and then obsessed—with the airplanes in his movies, enough so that he bought his own airline and started to make planes himself.
Hughes bedded some of Hollywood’s grandest leading ladies, and had access to hundreds more if he wanted them (which by the end, he didn’t). Hughes battled censors, crooked politicians and the Hollywood elite to become a one-of-a-kind original. He also went nuts, and by the end of his life was a virtual recluse, refusing to see anyone for decades.
This was the result of Hughes’s crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Scorsese doesn’t really get to those later years, preferring to focus on the good time of the man, but he does give us foreshadowing and future echoes, of what is to come.
To speak (or write) of THE AVIATOR, we must look at the actors and the director. Leonardo DiCaprio is fantastic as the enigmatic Hughes, giving an impassioned performance, showing us both the incredible zeal of the man and his frightening terror within. As a minor quibble, I never got the sense of why Hughes felt these things (other than a pop-psychology throw-away opening, like the first panel of a Sunday comic), but I don’t know if this is because Hughes’s malady was unknowable, or because DiCaprio is a more old-fashioned actor, working from the outside in.
(Come to think of it, I never knew what DiCaprio’s Romeo (WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO AND JULIET), Jack (TITANIC), or even his Amsterdam (GANGS OF NEW YORK) were thinking. This bears more thought. Nonetheless, DiCaprio is awesome and will well-deserve his expected Oscar Nomination.)
The other men in the film –played by the Hollywood A-List—have minor roles, and are great. What’s more interesting is the parade of Hollywood women. Gwen Stefani was only on screen for a minute and a half, so her Jean Harlow left no impression on me. I confess I don’t know enough about Ava Gardner’s persona to tell if Kate Beckinsale did her justice, but from my perspective the performance was a bit bland.
I am on record as saying that Cate Blanchett is the best actress alive, and this opinion is only solidified by her unbelievably spot-on Katharine Hepburn. In this I know I too much about the Lioness of 1930s-40s American Cinema, which is a disadvantage to an actor. Blanchett doesn’t go for mimicry or the spirit of Hepburn, rather she simply is the mercurial red-head. Elby and I were blown away. Oscar should come calling.
This brings us to Scorsese. What a craftsman he is. I’ve grown to appreciate him more and more over the years. Scorsese recreates the golden age of Hollywood, wisely going for the visceral feel of the time when these actors were gods, including larger-than-life premieres and parties, and through-the-looking glass restaurants where Errol Flynn might stumble up to you and thrown a punch, just for the hell of it.
The color and the music also both play pivotal roles in attacking the era and bringing it to us in a visual and audio feast.
In all of this is Hughes, a genius and an idiot, a dreamer and a fool, a hard-nosed operator and a scared-stupid little kid.
Biopics—faithful ones, at least—are by nature limited in their narrative scope. After all, what happened happened, and what’s left is interpretation. So, while I could have wished to see a different ending (and more bedding down of the Hollywood women), I was sympathetic, as I know how hard Scorsese tries to get the details right.
He certainly has. THE AVIATOR is one of the best biographies ever made.
Hyperion’s Rating System (based on Column #121, if you need details):
Suspension of Disbelief Index (0-10): 3. This is supposed to be pretty real, and for the most part we get that.
Genre Grade: Obviously it’s a Biography, and while it only covers a portion of Hughes’s life, it’s still an A+.
Pantheon Percentile (50 is average; 99 the best movie ever made): THE AVIATOR, like many of Scorsese’s gems, has a timeless quality that will make it as good ten years from now as it was today. 95.
If you’d rather stay in and rent a movie, might I suggest Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL? The film takes place on one night in Los Angeles, as cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) unknowingly picks up hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) who had business to tend to this night.
For the second time in a decade Cruise plays drastically against type, and he’s as good here as he was in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. Come to think of it, I have never seen a poor Tom Cruise performance or a bad Cruise film.1 I know I say that the directors and the writers make the movie, and not to see a film because of the actors, but because of the level of his involvement, in Cruise’s case you can make an exception. In COLLATERAL, Cruise gives us a nuanced electric performance of Vincent; a very professional killer, but a man also at a crossroads.
Of course, if you’re taking my advice and picking movies by director, you simply can’t go wrong with Michael Mann. He’s given us such films as LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE INSIDER and HEAT. In COLLATERAL, Mann manages to make the night-time city come alive. It breathes with a sensuality and a menace that is palpable. This sounds like a weird comparison, but no one films a city as well as Mann unless it’s Woody Allen’s New York in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Besides the city-as-character—Mann gives us a soundtrack that at times seduces and at other times jars our sensibilities. I was mesmerized. (Also, if you can, take the time to watch the making-of Documentary. Mann came up with life histories for all of his characters and had his actors spend time in places and with people that would help them understand the “why” of their characters’ behavior, even if it doesn’t come across on film, except in subtext.)
This brings me to Jamie Foxx. Seriously: who knew? Five years ago, after the likes of IN LIVING COLOR, THE PLAYERS CLUB and BOOTY CALL (which, to this day I’m ashamed my sisters have seen), would you have predicted acting greatness? But Foxx is having some kind of year. He’s nominated for 3 Golden Globes, and is the frontrunner for Best Actor in RAY. I haven’t seen that, but Foxx is absolutely stunning in COLLATERAL. Even without the stalwart Tom Cruise or Michael Mann, COLLATERAL is worth seeing for the chameleon complexity of Foxx’s cab-driver Max.
So, I’ve praised the principles, but is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? I think so. I believe COLLATERAL is a movie I will grow to appreciate even more in time. The chemistry between Vincent and Max is magnetic, and the plot hums along nicely, never rushing, but always full of pop and the dread of what comes next. The ending goes a tad action-thriller cliché, but by then you’ll be so satisfied you won’t care. COLLATERAL is one of the 10 best movies of 2004.
Suspension of Disbelief Index: 5. Don’t’ sweat the coincidences. Without them these movies would never happen.
Genre Grade: I’m creating a genre of “Good guy caught in a bad situation” (think NORTH BY NORTHWEST or ENEMY OF THE STATE, and I bet you never thought those two films would be in the same sentence). In this genre, I give it an A.
Pantheon Percentile. This will be rewatchable for ever. A must own. 91.
I’m tired of writing now. Must sleep or will possibly die. Let me know if there’s a movie you’d like reviewed, and I’ll get to the rest as soon as I can.
That’s all Folks,
January 14, 2005
1 Obviously, I’m not counting LEGEND
Thanks to Elby for seeing AVIATOR with me
Thanks to Masie for encouraging me to write even though I was half-dead
Thanks to Lanfear for insisting I rent COLLATERAL
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