Monday, October 09, 2006

The Aviator

Martin Scorcese would be forgiven for having a chip on his shoulder where the American Motion Picture Academy are concerned. (Not that the lack of an oscar nod should get him down, considering the high level of quality he's managed to maintain over the last twenty years or so.) Despite the lack of oscar gold, his movies seem to grow in popularity year on year, as new audiences discover their dark delights. From his well-documented, and tempestuous working relationship with Robert DeNiro, which arguably produced career highs for both, to the now fledgeling Scorcese-DiCaprio love affair, the director has a knack for connecting with audiences, meaning that the box office is always good to Marty, whether the paperweight statuettes arrive or not.

With 'The Aviator', and 'Gangs of New York' before it, Marty has wholeheartedly tried to curry Oscar favour, but to no avail. Scorcese himself has admitted that he has now decided to shift his focus away from winning the oscar with his new offering 'The Departed' (review coming soon, folks) deciding instead to make a trademark Scorcese crime thriller that mass audiences could relate to... prioritising the audience above the academy if you like. Well, great! However, in advance of going to see 'The Departed' I decided to take a look at 'The Aviator', one I missed out on during its run in theaters.

If Scorcese has left behind the production values and style that make The Aviator such an lavishly entertaining motion picture, then that is perhaps the audience's loss. The production is big, colourful and packed with an all-star cast that dominate the screen. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the notorious Howard Hughes, after whom the film is named. This eccentric character certainly lived an extremely interesting life, and Scorcese has packed a hell of a lot of it into this two and a half hour movie, without ever letting the pace drag noticeably.

DiCaprio is not my favourite actor, but I found myself begrudgingly admiring his performance here. The role bears many of the hallmarks of a classic leading man in a Scorcese picture: larger than life character? Check. Noticeable physical transformation? Check. Descent into dark areas of the psyche? Check. Fans of Scorcese will recognize much of his signatures in the main protagonist in the Aviator. And I have to say, Leo does remarkably well in the role. He portrays Hughes as a tortured soul, and wins our sympathies early in the picture. Which is just as well, as he is in almost every scene of the film!

Cate Blanchett plays Katherine Hepburn, the love of Hughes' life, and where DiCaprio is very good, she is simply stunning, and fully deserved the Oscar gong she received for this role.

The support players are heavy weight, and all well cast: Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale, Ian Holm... the gang's all here! Even Gwen Stefani appears for a brief moment, prompting the suspicion that anyone might appear from one moment to the next (... and is that Rufus Wainright singing in the night-club?)

While the Aviator is is admittedly no 'Goodfellas', I contend that that ain't no bad thing, and would commend Scorcese for taking a step outside of his comfort zone. (And isn't any comparison with Goodfellas always going to be a little unfair?) Scenes of graphic violence are replaced with lavish special-effects driven moments telling the story of Hughes' aviatiory triumphs. These were no mean feats, and Scorcese ensures the images on screen evoke the grandeur they must have signified to cinema audiences of the day, watching Hughes' latest adventure unfold in newsreels before the main feature.

Hughes' mind was not always reliable however, and his descent from mild eccentricity into real mental illness is very well portrayed by DiCaprio on-screen, in an albeit cosmetic physical transformation, but one which renders him almost unrecognizable. For me though, despite DiCaprio's impressive performance, it is Blanchett who steals the show, and she must now be recognised as one of the best leading ladies working today.

The production is extravagant, lavish and colourful, and the screen is illuminated with real cinematographic skill, almost like Scorcese is saying to us: "look! see what I can do, dammit?! I don't need Joe Pesci!" (Or words to that effect!) However, it wasn't meant to be at the Oscars, and Million Dollar Baby stole the gong that night. In my opinion though 'The Aviator' is a far superior movie.

Fans of Scorcese will find enough to remind them of his more 'gangster' days, but the Aviator's impressive cast, and setting in the romantic heyday of the forties in Hollywood should mean it has reached a wider audience who will find more than his usual grit, dark insights and witty dialogue Scorcese is renowned for purveying. That said, I'm now really looking forward to seeing 'The Departed'!

Verdict: beautifully made story, well told and very well acted, a winner for Scorcese buffs and novices alike.
Rating: 7/10

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