This Month's Featured Equipment Reviews
Written by Bill Warren
Tuesday, 24 May 2005
|Warner Bros. Home Video
||Leonardo Di Caprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin
|DVD release year:
The first part here is a condensed version of our review of the theatrical release of “The Aviator.”
Notes on the DVD follow.
This movie may have been instrumental in changing the current common
image of Howard Hughes as a wacky old miser holed up in a series of Las
Vegas hotels, his hair and fingernails grown long, hoarding his own
urine. However he ended up, he was one of the most remarkable
individuals of the 20th Century, in some ways the emblem of that
century: a lanky guy from Texas, a multi-millionaire by his early
twenties, who barged into Hollywood, made one of the greatest early
talkies, romanced famous stars, set aerial speed records, took TWA from
a minor carrier to one of the world’s major airlines. He was a
brilliant inventor and engineer, loyal to those who were loyal to him,
a major figure in business, and a man whose sanity drained away over
the years. And he thought of himself as an aviator.
“The Aviator” is an epic on the same scale as Hughes himself:
spectacular, intimate and deeply engrossing. The true climax of the
film, when Hughes takes his mammoth Hercules (commonly called The
Spruce Goose) up into the air for its one and only flight, is
astonishingly exciting and, unexpectedly, deeply moving. You find
yourself cheering Hughes on, urging him to this one last triumph.
Leonardo di Caprio talked Martin Scorsese into directing, and could
hardly have made a better choice. Like all of Scorsese’s films, “The
Aviator” every aspect is thoroughly realized—the photography, the sets,
the music track. As it’s a biography, and wasn’t originated by
Scorsese, it lacks some of his recurring themes, but it’s as
brilliantly made as any of his films. It’s dramatic, moving, funny,
fascinating, spectacular and also intimate.
There’s a brief scene in which Howard as a boy is lovingly bathed by
his germophobic mother; she warns him that the world is full of germs,
and that he must always be on his guard. Screenwriter John Logan is a
bit facile here, reducing the obsessive-compulsive disorder of Hughes’
later years to an unconscious desire to please his mom. Psychological
complexities as twisted as those that drove Hughes into self-imposed
and wacky exile are not so easily explained.
And then it’s on to Hollywood, where Hughes is determined to make an
epic of World War I aviation, “Hell’s Angels.” He briskly hires Noah
Dietrich (John C. Reilly), loyal to Hughes until Howard died—and then
was cut completely out of Hughes’ will. Hughes is a bundle of energy,
full of demands, but intensely creative and imaginative. With the help
of designer/engineer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), another long-time
employee, Hughes designs a monoplane for camera use—and sets the world
air speed record, almost offhandedly.
Three years pass as Hughes obsessively works on “Hell’s Angels.” He
realizes there has to be clouds in the background to tell how fast his
biplanes are going, so he immediately hires UCLA meteorologist
Professor Fitz (Ian Holm), another long-time employee, who can tell him
when there will be clouds. Hughes waits for clouds, of course. When the
film is essentially finished, he decides to shoot it again, in sound.
Meanwhile, he lands a seaplane at a movie location and makes a date
with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who’s there shooting a movie
with Cary Grant and George Cukor. Hepburn and Hughes have a passionate
affair, which we’re shown comes to an end when she falls in love with
another man, presumably Spencer Tracy
It’s an imaginative look at the times and person of Howard Hughes. The
production design by Dante Ferretti and wide-screen photography by
Robert Richardson are intensely creative. Ferretti recreates Hughes’
favorite night spot, The Cocoanut Grove,” especially impressive when
Hughes first arrives: we’re behind Di Caprio as lights spring up all
over the crowded, giddy throng. The first third or so of the film is in
desaturated color, at times approximating the look of two-strip
Technicolor. Later, when Technicolor itself blossomed into the stunning
hues of the late 30s, so does “The Aviator.”
There are some sets so spectacularly beautiful as to make you gasp in
amazement; one is a restroom at the Cocoanut Grove, all in green, black
and silver. Later, we see the office of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin),
Hughes’ polite, urbane but tough-as-steel rival: Trippe is the head of
Pan Am, and wants his company to be the only trans-Atlantic airline.
His office is in the top of the Chrysler Building, and looks like
something from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Hughes throughout astonishes us: his intense intelligence, his ability
to make multi-million-dollar decisions in a flash, his energy and
courage. And his weakening mind. He hasn’t been going with Hepburn very
long before he hesitantly admits that he has feelings about things that
may not really be there.
When World War II starts, Hughes envisions a colossal transport plane,
not just for troops but for materiel as well. And as he’s working on
the design of the Hercules, he’s also designing a brassiere for Jane
Russell, his latest discovery to wear in “The Outlaw.” He also begins
an affair with Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), a tough, salty beauty
who’s fond of Hughes but unwilling to be pushed around by him.
In all this maelstrom of activity, he begins exhibiting disturbing
behavior. “Show me all the blueprints,” Hughes says—and then says it
again, and again, and again; he struggles to stop, but cannot. He has
occasional difficulties due to his fear of germs, as when he’s briefly
trapped in a bathroom, fearful of touching the doorknob. (We see this,
as Scorsese points out, from the point of view of the doorknob.)
He reverts to normal—or normal for Howard Hughes—and after the war,
helps design his experimental XF11 reconnaissance plane. He insists on
making the test flight himself, and spectacularly crashes in Beverly
Hilles. This is a stunning achievement, technically: awesome,
frightening, disturbing in a chaotic way. It’s another of those scenes
that indicate that Scorsese could master ANY genre.
Hughes slowly recovers, but becomes reclusive, watching “The Outlaw”
over and over, living alone in a dark room, detailing very specific
instructions on how his food is to be prepared, beginning to save his
urine in milk bottles. Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), largely in
Trippe’s pocket, cannot get Howard to agree to withdraw his intention
of turning TWA into an international carrier. So he begins a senate
inquisition, and the movie reaches its emotional climax.
“The Aviator” is almost three hours long, and speeds by as if it were
only 90 minutes. It seizes the viewer’s attention and commands it
throughout. One of the most important features of the film is Leonardo
Di Caprio’s deeply committed performance as Howard Hughes; this is the
highlight of his career to date. He adopts Hughes’ somewhat
high-pitched voice and Texas accent; during the film, his voice
coarsens and deepens, becoming gravelly.
Hughes commanded instant loyalty; for all his strangeness, he was a
figure of unquestionable authority, and that’s how Di Caprio plays him.
We see his imagination and creativity, his occasional cold remoteness,
his sexual drive, his lack of understanding of the people who matter
most to him, but also his instant, accurate assessment of his
opponents. Furthermore, almost all who really knew Hughes admit to his
strangeness, but add that he was also a likeable person. Di Caprio
doesn’t exaggerate anything in hopes of making his Hughes likeable; he
and Scorsese present him as the man he was—and we like him anyway, just
as Hughes’ real-life friends did. The movie makes no pretense of
explaining Hughes, instead depicting him thoroughly and carefully.
It was courageous of Miramax and Warner Bros. to finance “The Aviator.”
After all, most of the world has largely forgotten Howard Hughes, and
Di Caprio’s boxoffice appeal is uncertain. But this immensely
entertaining, deeply engrossing movie, a testament to the filmmaking
prowess of Martin Scorsese, should restore Hughes to his wobbly
pedestal, and ensure Di Caprio’s place as a major actor.
It has been given appropriately lavish treatment in this excellent,
two-disc DVD set. Disc One includes the movie itself, with an optional
commentary track by director Scorsese. He’s an ideal choice for such a
chore; he talks a mile a minute and so includes a great deal more
information than an ordinary person would. He’s so much in control of
every aspect of filming that he’ll describe details you couldn’t
possibly notice, and he’s also one of America’s pre-eminent, liveliest
film buffs. If he weren’t a director, he could easily step directly
into Leonard Maltin’s job with no need to brush up on anything.
The second disc has all the swell extras. There’s a deleted scene in
which Hughes uncomfortably reveals that he accidentally killed someone.
“A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator” is a standard,
unexceptional making-of documentary, done while the film was still in
production. Much more interesting is “The Role of Howard Hughes in
Aviation History,” completely described by its title. George J. Marrett
and James B. Steele, both authors of books on Hughes, authoritatively
comment on his importance in aviation history. Screenwriter John Logan
points out that the Beverly Hills crash of Hughes’ XF-11 may be the
precise point at which Hughes’ life began to turn in on itself.
A History Channel show, “Howard Hughes Tech,” is astonishingly
thorough, showing how Hughes’ money and the companies he started have
been instrumental in helicopters, space satellites, antenna-dish
television and even the Moon landings. The most important legacy of
Hughes may be the fully-funded research hospital on the East Coast;
their backing is so complete that they don’t have to turn to any other
sources to fund their important research.
There are two sections on obsessive-compulsive disorder, the
disease—and that’s what it is—that so completely crippled Hughes as
time went by. The first one is primarily focused on Dr. Jeffrey M.
Schwartz, an engaging expert on OCD, and Leonardo Di Caprio—who admits
to having suffered from it himself. A couple of real OCD patients
appear anonymously, one of whom advised Logan and Di Caprio on the film.
The other OCD presentation is a panel discussion held December 2, 2004,
and featuring Schwartz and Di Caprio again, as well as Hughes’ ex-wife
Terry Moore, Martin Scorsese and Dr. Peter Whybrow of UCLA.
There’s also a lively, funny two-man interview with Di Caprio and Alan
Alda, who’s just as ingratiating and entertaining as himself as he was
as Hawkeye Pierce. They talk about telephone poles. Among the
interesting ideas that come up here is that since it is possible for
OCD sufferers to control the disease through intense concentration, the
immense productivity of Howard Hughes might have been the way he found
to handle the difficult condition.
There is a section on the extensive visual effects for the movie,
fascinating as visual effects supervisor Robert Legato demonstrates how
some of the planes were constructed in the computer, but others were
elaborate miniatures, including in the Beverly Hills Crash scenes.
There’s a lot of information here partly because Legato talks almost as
fast as Scorsese.
Production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell
have chapters devoted to their work, as do Moray Rosskva and Kathryn
Blondell, respectively the heads of the makeup and hairstyling
divisions. The section devoted to the music is unexpectedly
entertaining; Howard Shore is interesting enough, but Loudon Wainwright
III, the distinctive singer who appears in the film (as do two of his
singer children), is lively and funny, an unexpectedly fresh breeze
near the end of this lavish DVD package.
Howard Hughes wasn’t just an important figure in movie and aviation
history, he was one of the great icons of the twentieth century, one of
the touchstones for the kind of superlative characters who turned up in
pop fiction. Einstein and Tesla were the working models for the mad
scientist, but the crazy rich inventor so often seen in all kinds of
comedies—that was basically Howard Hughes. It’s surprising that no
other major movie has been based on Hughes—“The Carpetbaggers” was
suggested by his life story—but we can be grateful that it was Martin
Scorsese and Leonardo Di Caprio who first took the plunge. This isn’t
likely to be the last movie about Hughes, but it will long remain the
|Dolby Surround 5.1
|Widescreen (16X9 enhanced)
disc, feature and commentary track by Martin Scorsese; second disc
Making “The Aviator,” The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History, a
History Channel documentary, two sections on obsessive-compulsive
disorder, an interview with Leonardo Di Caprio and Alan Alda, and
sections on visual effects, production design, hair and makeup,
costumes and music
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