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Scorsese soars 

A review of The Aviator

click to enlarge Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and Howard Hughes - (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the premiere of Hughes' Hell's - Angels, which made Harlow a star.
  • Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) and Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) at the premiere of Hughes' Hell's Angels, which made Harlow a star.

*The Aviator (PG-13))
Miramax Films

Martin Scorsese finally delivers another movie that lives up to his promise as a master of his craft. In The Aviator, Leonardo DiCaprio gives an eloquent and sympathetic portrayal of Howard Hughes, one of the 20th century's most creative and tragically flawed figures. Screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) deserves special praise for his terse script that emphasizes Hughes' life from his 1920s independent directorial movie effort to his 1940s congressional showdown over military contracts with the U.S. government to provide airplanes during World War II.

Scorsese opens the film with an introduction scene of Hughes as a child being bathed by his mother during a flu quarantine. The darkly lit scene resonates with the opening of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The lasting effects of Hughes' adolescent experience with germs and his mother's strict warnings will inform every aspect of his personal and private adult life.

From its dynamic introduction of the 21-year-old Hughes working on the set of his dogfight-themed epic war movie Hell's Angels, Scorsese sets a hot tempo for the story that reflects the rapid-fire mind of its larger-than-life protagonist. Though Hell's Angels was already the most expensive film ever made when it finished shooting, Hughes insisted on re-shooting it because he was unhappy with the midair dogfights that lacked background clouds to give the audience a reference for the rapid speed of the planes. But by the time he had refilmed the sequences, sound had entered into movies with Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, and Hughes insisted on re-shooting his film again. The episode provides a microcosm for Hughes' astuteness and nervous perfectionism that paid off in spades when Hell's Angels was released to massive public acclaim.

It's during the daily grind of Hughes's filmmaking experiences that Scorsese and DiCaprio lock in on the dueling aspects of the man that enabled him to create on a grand scale at a pace that was unimaginable to even those near him. The clincher here is Scorsese's masterful blending of design aspects and seamless digital technology to create a look for The Aviator that is similar to the two-strip and three-strip Technicolor film that Hughes used for his films.

The introduction of Katharine Hepburn into Hughes' personal world in the early '30s is marked by Cate Blanchett's extraordinary rendition of the legendary actress. Ms. Blanchett's unmistakable visage is momentarily unrecognizable when she enters the screen during a round of golf with the instantly charmed but caught off guard Howard Hughes. The couple's ideal intimate life begins to crack, however, when Hepburn invites him to meet her openly socialist family in Connecticut. The family condescends to Hughes at their dinner table, and Hughes observes a side of Hepburn that he is unable to mitigate. The scene is a brilliant and complex example of Hughes navigating a social situation that challenges his immense intellect and charisma.

As Hughes' nervous tics and hygienic obsessions increasingly plague him, he presses more into his desire for speed, breaking the world speed record in 1936 in the H-1 Racer that he personally designed without any formal training in aeronautics. Audiences will be flabbergasted by one spectacular crash-landing sequence that's a model of visual style and cinematic organization.

The Aviator is a glorious biographical view of Howard Hughes as a futurist and a story about the adversities he rose above to achieve his personal mission. The triumph of the film is the way that it unites the audience with its subject, enabling viewers to share a quality of genius and generosity that is rarely attained either in life or on film.

-- Cole Smithey

We were unable to verify locations this week; please call your favorite movie theater to find this film.

  • A review of The Aviator

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