“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

 

“THE AVIATOR” (2004) Review

There have been many films, television episodes and documentaries that either featured or were about aviation pioneer and movie producer Howard Hughes. But Martin Scorsese’s 2004 biopic, “THE AVIATOR”, was the first that featured a large-scale production about his life.

Set twenty years between 1927 and 1947, “THE AVIATOR” centered on Hughes’ life from the late 1920s to 1947 during the time he became a successful film producer and an aviation magnate, while simultaneously growing more unstable due to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie opened with the Houston-born millionaire living in California and producing his World War I opus, “HELL’S ANGELS”. He hires Noah Dietrich to run his Texas operation, the Hughes Tool Company, while he becomes increasingly obsessed with finishing the movie.

“THE AVIATOR” not only covered Hughes’ production of “HELL’S ANGELS” in the 1920s; it also covered his life during the next fifteen to twenty years. The 1930s featured his romance with actress Katherine Hepburn and his aviation achievements in the 1930s, including his purchase of Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). However, the second half of the movie covers the years 1941-47, which featured his relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue, his obsession with construction his military flying ship the Hercules (Spruce Goose), his near-fatal crash in the XF-11 reconnaissance plane, his legal and financial problems that led to conflicts with both Pan Am chairman Juan Trippe and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, and most importantly his increasingly inability to deal with his obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I have never maintained a strong interest in Howard Hughes before I saw “THE AVIATOR”. One, his politics have always repelled me. And two, most productions tend to portray Hughes from an extreme point-of-view, with the exception of Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in the 1980 movie, “MELVIN AND HOWARD”, and Terry O’Quinn’s more rational portrayal in 1991’s “THE ROCKETEER”“THE AVIATOR” seemed to be another exception to the rule. With Hughes as the main character, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Josh Logan managed to delve into the millionaire to create a portrait of a admittedly fascinating and complex man. Foreknowledge of Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder allowed Scorcese, Logan and DiCaprio to approach the subject, instead of dismissing it as a sign of the millionaire’s growing insanity. Both Scorsese and Logan seemed willing to explore nearly all aspects of Hughes’ personality – both good and bad – with the exception of one area. I noticed that both director and screenwriter had failed to touch upon the man’s racism. With the exception of one brief scene in which Hughes briefly pondered on any alleged sins of a fictional columnist named Roland Sweet, the movie never really hinted, let alone explored this darker aspect of Hughes’ personality. I have to applaud both Scorsese and Logan for the manner in which they ended the film. “THE AVIATOR” could have easily ended on a triumphant note, following Hughes’ defeat of both Juan Trippe and Senator Owen Brewster. Instead, the movie ended with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder slipping out of control, hinting the descent that he would experience over the next three decades.

Many recent biopics tend to portray the lives and experiences of its subjects via flashbacks. Why? I do not know. This method is no longer revolutionary or even original. Yet, many filmmakers still utilize flashbacks in biopics as if it is something new. Thankfully, Scorsese and Logan tossed the use of flashbacks in the wind and decided to tell Hughes’ story in a linear narrative. And I say, thank God, because flashbacks are becoming a bore. However, Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, with the help of Legend Films, did something unique for the film’s look. Since “THE AVIATOR” was set during Hughes’ first twenty years in Hollywood, the pair decided to utilize the Multicolor process (in which a film appeared in shades of red and cyan blue) for the film’s first 50 minutes, set between 1927 and 1935. This color process was available during this period. Hollywood began using Three-strip Technicolor after 1935. And to emulate this, Scorsese, Richardson and Legend Films tried to re-create this look for the scenes set after 1935. And I must say that I really enjoyed what they did. Apparently, so did the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Richardson won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work.

“THE AVIATOR” earned ten (10) more Academy Award nominations; including including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese, Best Original Screenplay for Logan, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Alan Alda, Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett, Best Film Editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, Best Costume Design for Sandy Powell, and Best Art Direction for Robert Guerra, Claude Paré and Luca Tranchino. Along with Richardson, Blanchett, Schoonmaker, Guerra, Paré and Luca all won. I would have been even more happy if Scorsese, DiCaprio and Logan had also won. But we cannot always get what we want. I realize that “THE AVIATOR” is not the most original biopic ever made. But there is so much about the film’s style, content and the acting that I enjoyed that it has become one of my favorite biopics, anyway. I was especially impressed by Schoonmaker’s editing in the sequence featuring Hughes’ crash of the experimental XF-11 in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, Sandy Powell’s beautiful costumes that covered three decades in Hughes’ life and the rich and gorgeous art designs from the team of Guerra, Paré and Tranchino; who did a superb job of re-creating Southern California between 1927 and 1947.

But no matter how beautiful a movie looked, it is nothing without a first-rate script and an excellent cast. I have already commented on Josh Logan’s screenplay. I might as well do the same about the cast of “THE AVIATOR”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ right-hand man; Ian Holm as Hughes’ minion Professor Fitz; Matt Ross as another one of Hughes’ right-hand men, Glen “Odie” Odekirk; and Kelli Garner as future RKO starlet Faith Domergue. Danny Huston was stalwart, but not particularly memorable as TWA executive, Jack Frye. Jude Law gave an entertaining, yet slightly over-the-top cameo as Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Adam Scott also tickled my funny bone, thanks to his amusing performance as Hughes’ publicist Johnny Meyer. And Gwen Stefani gave a surprisingly good performance as another film legend, Jean Harlow.

As I had stated before, Cate Blanchett won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hollywood icon, Katherine Hepburn. At first, I had feared that Blanchett’s performance would turn out to be nothing more than mimicry of Hepburn’s well-known traits. But Blanchett did a superb job of portraying Hepburn as a full-blooded character and stopped short of portraying the other actress as a cliche. I could also say the same for Kate Beckinsale, who gave a more subtle performance as another Hollywood legend, Ava Gardner. At first, Beckinsale’s portrayal of Gardner’s sexuality threatened to seem like a cliche. But the actress managed to portray Gardner as a human being . . . especially in two scenes that featured the latter’s anger at Hughes’ possessive behavior and her successful attempt at drawing the aviator out of his shell, following Congress’ harassment. Alan Alda was superb as the manipulative Maine senator, Owen Brewster, who harassed and prosecuted Hughes on behalf of Pan Am and Juan Trippe. He truly deserved an Oscar nomination for portraying one of the most subtle villains I have ever seen on film. And Alec Baldwin gave a wonderfully sly and subtle performance as the Pan Am founder and Hughes’ business rival.

But the man of the hour who carried a 169 minutes film on his back turned out to be the movie’s leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. The actor, who was twenty-nine to thirty years old at the time, did a superb job of re-capturing nearly every aspect of Howard Hughes’ personality. More importantly, his acting skills enabled him to convey Hughes’ age over a period of twenty years – from 22 to 42. What I really admired about DiCaprio was his ability to maintain control of a performance about a man who was gradual losing control, thanks to his medical condition. I suspect that portraying a man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, over a period of two decades must have been quite a task for DiCaprio. But he stepped up to the batter’s plate and in the end, gave one of the best performances of his career.

For me, it seemed a pity that “THE AVIATOR” had failed to cap the Best Picture prize for 2004. Mind you, it is not one of the most original biographical dramas I have ever seen. Then again, I cannot recall a biographical movie that struck me as unusual. Or it could be that the Academy has associated Martin Scorsese with crime dramas about the Mob. In the end, it does not matter. Even after nearly eight years, “THE AVIATOR”, still continues to dazzle me. Martin Scorsese did a superb job in creating one of the best biographical films I have seen in the past two to three decades.

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“THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” (2004) Review

“THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” (2004) Review

I have seen only four movies directed by Roland Emmerich. All of them were disaster films of some kind, whether they centered on an alien invasion or a natural catastrophe. Of the four movies, only one of them I had failed to see in the movie theaters. That movie happened to be Emmerich’s 2004 movie, “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW”

The movie depicted the catastrophic effects of global warming in a series of extreme weather events that ushers in global cooling which leads to a new ice age. “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” began with a paleoclimatologist named Jack Hall on an expedition in Antarctica with his two colleagues, Frank and Jason. While drilling for ice core samples on an ice shelf for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Jack almost falls to his death, when the shelf breaks off. Later, Jack presents his findings on global warming at a United Nations conference in New Dehli. Unfortunately, many diplomats and Vice President of the United States Raymond Becker remain unconvinced by Jack’s findings. But Professor Terry Rapson of the Hedland Climate Research Centre in Scotland believes Jack’s theories. Two buoys in the North Atlantic simultaneously show a massive drop in the ocean temperature and Rapson concludes that melting polar ice is disrupting the North Atlantic current. He contacts Jack, whose paleoclimatological weather model shows how climate changes caused the first Ice Age, and can predict what will happen. Jack believes the events will take hundreds or thousands of years. But his team and NASA’s meteorologist Janet Tokada build a forecast model with their combined data.

Across the world, violent weather causes mass destruction, including a massive snowstorm in New Delhi, a hailstorm destroying Tokyo, and a series of devastating tornadoes in Los Angeles. President Blake authorizes the FAA to suspend all air traffic due to severe turbulence. Meanwhile, Jack’s son, Sam is in New York City for an academic competition with his friends Brian and Laura. There, they befriend a student named J.D. (Austin Nichols). During the competition, birds migrating south suddenly fill the sky and the weather becomes increasingly violent with intense winds and rains. Sam calls his father, promising to be on the next train home. Unfortunately, the storm worsens, forcing the closure of the subways and Grand Central Terminal. As the storm worsens a massive tidal wave hits Manhattan, causing major flooding. Sam and his friends seek shelter in the New York Public Library.

After seeing the last Roland Emmerich film, 2009’s “2012”, I came to a conclusion that the director likes to follow a pattern regarding his disaster films. One, most these films usually feature a dysfunctional family or divorced couple, a new romance, cheesy dialogue (especially from minor characters), questionable science, an annoying government official, a head of state – friendly or otherwise, a friendly foreign-born colleague and a noble scientist in one of the leads. Well, “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” certainly featured every one of those traits. Which goes to show that the movie is not exactly an epitome of originality. I also have one more complaint. In my recap of the movie’s first forty minutes, I failed to point out that Dr. Lucy Hall, Jack’s ex-wife and Sam’s mother, remained behind at a Washington D.C. to care for a very ill young patient, while the city’s remaining citizens are evacuated to Mexico with the rest of the country’s southern citizens. Northern citizens, along with Sam and his friends in New York, are forced to remain behind and wait for rescue. The movie made such a big deal about Lucy’s willingness to sacrifice her safety for the sake of her patient. Yet, very little time passed before an ambulance appeared to evacuate both doctor and patient to the south. Talk about a wasted storyline.

Despite my quibbles about the movie’s lack of originality and the Lucy Hall storyline, I must admit that “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” has become one of favorite disaster movies of all time. I really enjoyed it. I was surprised to discover that screenwriters Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff may have used the historic 1993 Storm of the Century as an inspiration for the film. The screenwriters also did an able job of setting up the story with a series of natural disasters – the breaking of the ice shelf in Antarctica, the hailstorm in Tokyo and the series of tornadoes in Los Angeles. Emmerich and Nachmanoff also did an admirable job in setting up the movie’s centerpiece – the tidal wave that hits New York City – with a series of events that began with Terry Rapson and his colleagues detecting the drop in oceanic temperatures and ended with a heavy rainstorm that threatened Manhattan. With the exception of the Lucy Hall storyline in Washington D.C., I feel that this movie was well-paced not only by the screenwriters, but also by Emmerich’s direction.

However, I cannot talk about “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” without discussing the film’s special and visual effects. And I must be honest that I found them mind blowing. The special effects teams supervised by the likes of Louis Craig, John Palmer and Christian Rivest did a superb job in depicting the film’s natural disasters. I also found Greg and Colin Strause, Greg Anderson, Remo Balcells and Eric Brevig’s visual effects featured in the movie equally stunning. And with the assistance of cinematographer Ueli Steiger, these two teams made the Manhattan tidal wave and Ice Age sequences two of the most memorable I have ever seen in a disaster film. I have not been a fan of the musical scores featured in Emmerich’s films such as 1996’s “INDEPENDENCE DAY” and 1998’s “GODZILLA”. But I was surprised to find myself impressed by Harald Kloser and Thomas Wanker’s score for this film. It had a haunting and smooth quality that seemed lacking in some of Emmerich’s other films.

Despite my love for this film, I must admit that I found it almost difficult to endure some of the cheesy dialogue and acting by many of the minor characters. In fact, one could find some of the worst acting by minor characters in the sequence featuring the New York City tidal wave. Thankfully, “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” featured a solid cast that proved to be more talented than many of the minor supporting actors. I think that Dr. Jack Hall might prove to be one of my favorite Dennis Quaid roles. I realize that the actor is more known for portraying sexy, roguish types in movies like “THE BIG EASY” and “THE RIGHT STUFF”. But I must admit that I found it refreshing to see him portray a no-nonsense and intense type like Jack Hall. He was ably supported by Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of the character’s son, Sam Hall. Gyllenhaal must have been at least 22 or 23 years old at the time, but he skillfully projected a sardonic weariness, tinged with a little offspring resentment that strongly impressed me.

I also enjoyed the performances of Ian Holm as the intelligent and warm-hearted Terry Raspon; Sela Ward as Jack’s nearly frantic ex-wife; and Emmy Russum as Sam’s tender-hearted, yet ambitious love interest. Perry King’s President of the United States may have come off as a little too noble, but he still gave a solid performance. I was especially amused by Arjay Smith’s portrayal of Sam’s sardonic friend Brian; Glenn Plummer as the blunt, yet hilarious homeless man who decides to remain at the public library with Jack and his friends in order to survive; and Nestor Serrano as Jack’s no-nonsense boss at the NOAA. But the one performance that surprisingly impressed me came from Kenneth Walsh as the irritable Vice-President. The actor ably developed his character from a snide and bureaucratic politician to a man who had the grace and wisdom to realize that he had been wrong to doubt Jack.

I realize that “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” had received mixed reviews upon its release nearly seven years ago. Many critics had complained about the questionable science behind Roland Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s story and some of the film’s other flaws. But I believe that its virtues – a solid cast led by Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, stunning special and visual effects, a well-paced script and solid direction Emmerich – outweighed the flaws. And this is why it has become a personal favorite of mine.