“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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Controversial Finale: “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” (2.12) “To the Lost”

CONTROVERSIAL FINALE: “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” (2.12) “To the Lost”

The Season Two finale of “BOARDWALK EMPIRE”(2.12) “To the Lost” has been viewed as an end of an era for a good number of the series’ viewers and television critics. It marked an event that left some fans satisfied and others in a state of anger and resentment. But one cannot deny that this event – along with a few others – allowed the series to enter a new phase for its third season, which premiered last Sunday. 

One of the changes that materialized in “To the Lost” turned out to be the marriage between Atlantic City’s re-installed political boss, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson and his Irish-born mistress, the widowed Margaret Schroeder. Although both harbored feelings for each other, their marriage obviously seemed like one of convenience. Margaret had received a summons from Federal prosecutor Esther Randolph as a possible witness against Nucky for her husband’s murder back in Season One. By “To the Lost”, Margaret had embraced religion as a reaction to her daughter becoming a victim of the polio outbreak. When Nucky learned about her summons, he asked her to marry him in order to prevent her from testifying against him and to avoid serving time inprison. Margaret agreed. But she had also hoped to convince Nucky to do the same – before and after the charges against him were dropped. To her disappointment, Nucky revealed no interest in embracing religion. Worse, he had signed over a piece of valuable property to Margaret, when he feared that the Federal government might confiscate his possessions.

When Margaret learned about the murder of Alderman James Neary – an enemy of Nucky’s – she immediately assumed he was behind the crime. As it turned out, she was wrong. Nucky’s former protégée, Jimmy Darmody, committed the deed with friend Richard Harrow’s help, in an effort to win the political boss’ forgiveness for his betrayal. However, Margaret went ahead and signed over Nucky’s land to the Catholic Church. The ironic aspect of Margaret’s reasoning behind her actions was that she harbored a secret of her own. In the season’s seventh episode, (2.07) “Peg of Old”, she had sex with Owen Sleater, Nucky’s new bodyguard. This happened at a time when Nucky was facing an assassination attempt arranged by Jimmy. Margaret eventually found the nerve to confess her infidelity to the local priest and to God. Margaret seemed willing to judge Nucky for his lies – real and imagined. Yet, she failed to find the courage to confess her sin of infidelity to Nucky.

Albert “Chalky” White, the unofficial leader of Atlantic City’s African-American community, had to endure numerous difficulties during Season Two. The Ku Klux Klan attacked his bootleg operation in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “21”, resulting in the deaths of several of his men. Chalky managed to kill one of the Klansmen during the attack. He ended up being charged with murder. Nucky’s attorney managed to get him out of jail on bail, but Chalky still faced a trial. This ended when Jimmy managed to get the State Attorney’s office to drop the murder charges. Jimmy, along with Richard’s help, attacked a Klan gathering at gunpoint, shot two men and demanded the men who had attacked Chalky’s warehouse in “21”. After delivering the men to Chalky and the latter’s new right-hand man, former jail cell nemesis Dunn Purnsley, Jimmy asked the former to contact Nucky on his behalf. This arrest would lead to the first of two meetings between Jimmy and Nucky and the former’s controversial death that ended Season Two.

Like many other fans of “BOARDWALK EMPIRE”, I had made the mistake of assuming that Nucky would eventually forgive Jimmy for his Season Two transgressions. After all, the Jimmy Darmody character was the second lead in the series. After watching “To the Lost”, I realize that I had been living in a fantasy. So had Jimmy. The deaths of his wife Angela and father, the Commodore, in(2.11) “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” had left him shaken to his core. I suspect this also led him to realize it would be in his best interest to seek forgiveness from Nucky. Jimmy engaged in a campaign to make up for his past transgressions – which included a murder attempt on Nucky. With Richard’s help, he nabbed the Klansmen who was responsible for the attack on Chalky’s bootlegging operation; set up both Alderman Jim Neary and Eli Thompson for election fraud, before faking Neary’s death as a suicide; and claimed that Eli was responsible for introducing the idea of a hit on Nucky. But all of this did not work. It was Richard who pointed out that no matter what Jimmy did, Nucky would never forgive him.

Now that I think about it, I found myself wondering why Jimmy never considered the possibility that Nucky was not the forgiving type . . . until it was too late. Surely he must have remembered Nucky’s reaction when he and Al Capone had stolen Arnold Rothstein’s whiskey shipment in the series’ premiere, (1.01) “Boardwalk Empire”. Nucky had been so angry that he fired Jimmy as his driver and demanded that the World War I veteran pay $3,000 as compensation for committing the robbery in his town and without his consent. Jimmy was forced to flee from Atlantic City to Chicago, when a witness to the heist reappeared. And even though Nucky asked Jimmy to return to help him deal with his war against Rothstein, he remained angry over the heist. Now if Nucky was unable to completely forgive Jimmy for the whiskey heist in Season One; his chances of forgiving the younger man for an attempted murder seemed pretty moot. And no one – including myself – seemed to realize this.

I am not condoning Nucky’s murder of Jimmy. I believe that what he had done was wrong. But I must admit that I found some of the outraged reactions against the crime rather puzzling. Although some had expressed disappointment over Jimmy’s sanction of the murder attempt on Nucky in “Peg of Old”, the level of anger toward Jimmy seemed particularly mute in comparison to their anger toward Nucky for his actions in “To the Lost”. This same television season also saw the death of lead actor Sean Bean in another HBO series, “GAME OF THRONE”. Some had expressed surprise at the turn of events, but not anger.

Some fans might point out that it was Nucky’s younger brother and Atlantic City’s sheriff, the resentful Eli Thompson, who had initiated the idea of killing Nucky. Jimmy even told Nucky of Eli’s participation in the hit. I suspect that Nucky suspected that Jimmy had told the truth. But he had considered two things. One, Eli was his brother. And two, it was Jimmy who gave the final decision to have Nucky killed. In the end, even Eli failed to completely escape Nucky’s wrath. Although his life was spared, the political boss forced him to plead guilty to the corruption charges and face at least two years in prison (or less with parole). Something tells me that Eli’s career as Sheriff of Atlantic County had ended permanently.

Jimmy had also been wrong to order the hit on Nucky. Yet, the level of anger toward his act was barely minimal. Were these fans upset that Nucky had succeeded, where Jimmy had failed? Or was their anger due to the loss of the younger and good-looking Michael Pitt, who had NOT been the series’ lead? Because no one had expressed similar sentiments over the older Bean’s departure from “GAME OF THRONES”. Was this major outrage over Jimmy’s death had more to do with superficial preference than moral outrage? It is beginning to seem so to me.

I had enjoyed Michael Pitt’s portrayal of the troubled Jimmy Darmody, during his two-year stint on “BOARDWALK EMPIRE”. But unlike many other fans, I cannot accept the views of some that the series had jumped the shark with his character’s death. I refuse to claim that the series’ quality will remain the same, or get better or worse. I can only make that judgment after Series Three has aired. But the very talented Steve Buscemi remains at the lead as Enoch “Lucky” Thompson. And creator Terence Winter continues to guide the series. Considering the number of changes that marked “To the Lost”, I am curious to see how the story will continue.

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: Top Five Favorite Season One Episodes

 

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In September 2010, a new series based upon Nelson Johnson’s book about the famous New Jersey coastal city during the Prohibition Era, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City”, premiered on HBO. Created by Terence Winter and produced by him, Mark Walhberg, and Martin Scorcese; “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” starred Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Pitt and Michael Shannon. Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from the series’ first season: 

 

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASON ONE EPISODES

1. (1.09) “Belle Femme” – This episode about Enoch “Nucky” Johnson’s efforts to deal with the threat of a Democratic mayoral candidate screaming corruption and the D’Alessio gang; his mistress Margaret Schroeder promises to help a former employer; and Jimmy Darmody’s return from Chicago proved to be my favorite episode this season.

 

2. (1.10) “The Emerald City” – Nucky asks for Margaret’s assistance in backing his mayoral candidate with the passage of women’s right to vote, leaving her conflicted about her role as his mistress. He, along with Chalky White and Jimmy confront Meyer Lansky and two of the D’Alessio brothers. Jimmy’s common-law wife, Angela Darmody, witnesses his violent side against her photographer friend, and Federal agent Nelson Van Alden grapples with his emotions and has forceful encounters with both Margaret and Lucy.

 

3. (1.01) “Boardwalk Empire” – The ninety (90) minute series’ premiere episode introduced Atlantic City treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson at the dawn of Prohibition in January, 1920; and his plans to make himself and his associates very rich from the bootlegging business.

 

4. (1.04) “Anastasia” – Michael Kenneth Williams has a field day in this episode in which his character, Chalky White extracts vengeance from a local Ku Klux Klan leader for lynching one of his men. And in Chicago, Jimmy and Al Capone expand their business operations by taking over territories from a local Irish gangster, resulting in vicious consequences for a prostitute that Jimmy was fond of.

 

5. (1.11) “Paris Green” – This episode featured many shake-ups in the relationships of Nucky and Margaret; Van Alden and his assistant, Agent Sebso; Jimmy and his relationships with his real father, the Commodore, Nucky, and Angela.