“The Aviator”: Martin Scorsese Soars
Martin Scorsese has never won an Academy Award. In fact, in 1990, the year of his classic mob saga, “Goodfellas,” he lost out in both the Best Director and Best Picture categories to a first-time filmmaker, actor Kevin Costner (who won for “Dancing With Wolves”). Clearly, the gods of cinema have been taking a long nap.
But with “The Aviator,” Scorsese’s virtuosic new movie, this situation should finally be set right. The picture is another of his masterpieces, and it’s crowded with superb performances. It may be two and a half hours long, but it comes at you like a B-52 bomber, and it flies by.
Leonardo DiCaprio, who originated the project, has never been better than he is here, portraying Howard Hughes, the brilliant, twisted and somewhat sinister Texan who in the 1930s and ’40s made and spent millions of dollars as both a visionary aviator and a Hollywood movie mogul, but who ended his life in near-total isolation, consumed by mad delusions of conspiracy and bacterial infection.
The film begins in the late ’20s. Hughes, bankrolled by his family’s oil-industry patents, has assembled a small fleet of vintage aircraft in the California desert to begin filming his World War I air-battle epic, “Hell’s Angels.” DiCaprio, in a brown leather aviator jacket, with slicked-back black hair, plays this early incarnation of Hughes as a brash and handsome young perfectionist, determined to make a great movie no matter what the cost.
“Hell’s Angels” takes three years (and the lives of three pilots) to complete, with Hughes going up in a plane to shoot some of the extraordinary dogfight sequences himself. (Scorsese’s choreography of the action elements here, with biplanes swarming through the sky like motorized locusts, while DiCaprio, in the thick of them, cranks away with a hand-held camera, is sensational.) “Angels” was made as a silent movie, but when it’s finally finished, Hughes realizes that it already seems antiquated in the newly arrived era of talking pictures, so he orders that the entire film be re-shot, with sound.
Hollywood has been scoffing at what it sees as Hughes’ runaway production (he shot 25 miles of film for “Hell’s Angels”), but it doesn’t scoff for long. Scorsese captures the full chaos of sudden fame on the night of the movie’s 1930 premiere, when Hughes and his lead actress, platinum-haired Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), step out of their limo into a howling pack of photographers, fans and clamoring journalists and make their way unsteadily down a red carpet crusted with spent, crushed flashbulbs. And DiCaprio artfully conveys Hughes’ rigid, conflicted response — his loner’s dislike of crowds and his overriding attraction to the glittery Hollywood scene roiling around him.
When “Hell’s Angels” becomes a smash hit, he quickly takes to escorting young starlets around town to such celebrated nightspots as the Cocoanut Grove, where fake snow drifts down from the ceiling, showgirls fly through the air on overhead swings and sleek stars like Errol Flynn (Jude Law) carouse drunkenly down below, to the beat of blaring big-band music. (The Cocoanut Grove scenes have a kind of wild, demonic abandon that’s pure Scorsese.)
Hughes is launched as a movie titan, but he continues pursuing new highs in the world of aviation, setting transcontinental speed records, circumnavigating the globe, coming up with cutting-edge aircraft designs and, in one long, horrific sequence, being forced to crash-land a malfunctioning experimental plane in Beverly Hills. (The shots of its undercarriage ripping up roof tiles as it bangs along atop a row of houses before flaming out in a quiet residential street are astonishing.) Meanwhile, he begins a three-year relationship with actress Katharine Hepburn (an inspired performance by Cate Blanchett).
But Hughes, already an obsessive-compulsive personality (he carries a bar of soap with him everywhere, for frequent hand-washing), is on the brink of a mental breakdown. (“Sometimes I truly fear that I’m losin’ my mind,” he confesses to Hepburn.) He’s devastated, and furious, when she leaves him to take up with actor Spencer Tracy. (“Actresses are cheap in this town,” he tells her coldly, before she departs, “and I’ve got a lot of money.”) He maintains a vestigial reserve of loyalty, though, and later, when compromising photos of Hepburn and the still-married Tracy turn up, Hughes summons the tabloid photographer who took them to a dead-of-night meeting, and with some forthright blackmailing (“You ever go to a Communist Party meeting?”) manages to buy the pictures and squelch the story.
DiCaprio, in a fascinating performance of coiled, tensile power, vividly conveys Hughes’ compulsive drive and his growing remoteness; his growth into a millionaire celebrity and his eventual descent toward insanity. In his lucid moments (facilitated by such supportive friends as actress Ava Gardner, earthily portrayed by Kate Beckinsale), he battles industry film censors who refuse to approve his controversial 1941 Western, “The Outlaw.” (They’re offended by the wanton comportment of the film’s bosomy lead actress, Jane Russell, for whom Hughes designed the world’s first push-up bra.) And in one of the movie’s most electrifying sequences, he marches into a Washington Senate committee hearing and rousingly demolishes a corrupt politician (Alan Alda) who’s trying to prohibit Trans World Airlines, in which Hughes owns a controlling interest, from flying international air routes.
But Hughes is clearly losing his mind. In the film’s early scenes, we’ve seen him specifying that a bottle of milk be brought to him “with the cap still on.” When he wants some chocolate-chip cookies, he wants exactly 10 of them, “medium chips, none too close to the outside.” He orders a steak with exactly 12 peas, and when somebody playfully pinches one, Hughes puts down his fork in disgust and can’t continue eating. Later, when he’s “auditioning” a 15-year-old aspiring actress, he weirdly inquires, “Do you have any scars? Have you had surgery of any kind?” And by the time he’s progressed to the point of sitting naked for days in a “germ-free zone” in his home, and demanding that his many employees wear sterile white gloves at all times, we can see where he’s headed.
“The Aviator” doesn’t take us all the way there, though — that’s not Scorsese’s intent. All the way would be almost another story. Howard Hughes spent most of the last two decades of his life walled away from the public, mainly behind blacked-out windows on the top floor of the Desert Inn, one of several Las Vegas casino hotels he owned. There he pursued huge business deals and unsavory collusions with members of both political parties, as well as the CIA. He also apparently had developed a serious drug addiction over the years — after he died, in 1976, an autopsy reportedly revealed fragments of hypodermic needles that had broken off in his arms.
But Scorsese’s movie focuses on the man in his forceful prime, a monumental American eccentric who was determined to do whatever he wanted to do in exactly the way he wanted to do it, and DiCaprio nails this outsize character with consummate, intuitive skill. Hughes left a lot of wreckage in his wake — companies he heedlessly mismanaged, people whose lives he traumatized. In the end, the worst of these many ruins may have been himself.
“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”: The Kids Are Alright
Anyone familiar with the mock-gothic “Series of Unfortunate Events” novelettes by the San Francisco-based author Daniel Handler (who writes them under the pixilated pseudonym Lemony Snicket) will be aware that the three Baudelaire orphans, teenagers Violet and Klaus and toddler Sunny, have been left a lot of money but have, alas, also been left in the care — well, the clutches, actually — of a very distant relative called Count Olaf, who wants to kill them and nab their inheritance. This movie is based on the first three books in the Lemony Snicket series — “The Bad Beginning,” “The Reptile Room” and “The Wide Window” — and given the picture’s open-ended conclusion, it seems clear that the filmmakers are aiming for a franchise. (Eleven installments of the “Unfortunate Events” series have been published so far, and two more are projected.) I hope they succeed.
In some ways, this seems like a Tim Burton movie. Burton himself wasn’t involved (Brad Silberling directed), but the film’s cinematographer, art director, and production, costume and makeup designers have all worked with him, some of them extensively; and so the picture’s bleak vistas, dilapidated mansions and decrepit characters have a lovable Burtonian ambiance.
Jim Carrey gives one of his less-exhausting performances as Count Olaf, a spindly, moth-eaten stick figure who might have been raised in a wind tunnel — his goateed chin juts out ahead of the rest of his face, while the blown-back crown of his head zooms up in the opposite direction. Olaf is an actor by trade, a very bad one, and an out-of-the-blue windfall is just what he needs to finance his raggedy theatrical troupe. He’s unctuous at best, and transparently insincere, and when the Baudelaire siblings are delivered to the door of his ramshackle dwelling by the executor of their estate, Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), he vows, “I will raise these orphans as if they were actually wanted.”
The grown-ups in the story — among them such other relations as the viper-collecting adventurer Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and the deeply frazzled Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) — are oblivious to Olaf’s obviously malign intentions, but the Baudelaire kids have his number from the get-go, and they improvise nifty escapes from his murderous scenarios. They’re well-equipped to do so. The oldest of the siblings, Violet (played by the beautiful 16-year-old Australian actress Emily Browning), is an inventor — the creator, according to Snicket, of such things as “a bed that makes itself, an automatic harmonica player and a device that can retrieve a rock after it has been skipped into the ocean.” Her younger brother, Klaus (Liam Aiken, a precociously charismatic 14-year-old New Yorker), is a bookworm brimming with arcane knowledge. And the youngest (and maybe funniest) of the trio, the hilariously subtitled baby Sunny (played by alternating twins Kara and Shelby Hoffman), mainly likes to bite things, which can always come in handy.
Uncle Olaf locks the children in a car parked in the path of an oncoming train, but they outwit him and escape. They similarly avoid being eaten by giant leeches and blown off a cliff into the chilly waters of Lake Lachrymose. These adventures are all part of a larger story — something about mysterious fires and curious brass spyglasses — but we get only hints of it here. At the end of the picture, you’re kind of surprised not to see the words “To Be Continued” pop up before the credits. A sequel is definitely called for, though. This first movie is gorgeous to look at; Jim Carrey really is very funny; and the two main children, Browning and Aiken, are almost certainly stars-to-be. May they shine even brighter in a second installment.