July 6th: Flyboy


141. The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Howard Hughes was a very strange man. My experience of the man prior to this came mainly from the portrayal of Hughes in James Ellroy’s excellent books American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. In these books it is the late stage Hughes who appears, secluded and increasingly riven with bizarre mannerisms whilst heavily involved with the development of Las Vegas. He is also, along with his penchant for Mormons, extremely racist. This facet of his personality is only hinted at in The Aviator which focuses instead on Hughes’ experiences from filming Hell’s Angels up to the legendary flight of his ‘Spruce Goose’ giant aeroplane (a derogatory name which Hughes hated).

It’s difficult to say how I feel about this film, it comes from a director whose work in the 70s, 80s and 90s was consistently brilliant. But I can’t think of a Scorsese film that measures up to this period since Casino. Much the same as The Departed and Gangs of New York I can’t help but feel that there are pacing issues with The Aviator, at 170 minutes it feels sluggish and occasionally directionless. DiCaprio is fine and the supporting cast are excellent, particularly Cate Blanchett’s turn as Katharine Hepburn. The real climax of the film isn’t the flight of the behemoth aeroplane but the congressional hearings where Hughes displayed his charisma and intelligence to defeat a bill which could have crushed his own plane company, TWA. It seems odd then that this particular storyline isn’t the real focus of the film.

The Aviator is a competent film but one that doesn’t linger in the memory which is pretty damning criticism for the man who made a series of cinema classics.

May 22nd: How do you like them apples?


110. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006) #51 in IMDB top 250

In 2002 China had a smash hit film on its hands with Infernal Affairs. The Hong Kong film industry got the international visibility it had been waiting for since the departure of John Woo and a couple of, apparently decent, sequels were swiftly pumped out. A remake was inevitable. What wasn’t inevitable was that the remake would have this kind of director and this kind of profile.

Two men graduate from the Massachusetts State Police Academy, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent undercover to infiltrate the Irish mafia whilst Colin (Matt Damon) is already a mole for the mafia inside the police. The web of deceit creates an increasingly tense game of cat and mouse where each man strives to outwit the other.

This film has one stellar cast – it is brimming with talent at all turns. It’s adapted from an excellent source and it has at the helm one of the finest directors in modern American cinema.

Why then, is it mildly disappointing?

Mainly it’s because of Jack Nicholson. I love Jack, we all do. I just don’t think he has any great performances left in him. In The Departed he just does another impression of himself but with a Boston accent this time, enjoyable but not quite right for a film. Each raised eyebrow from Jack threatens to send him over the edge to high camp, moustache-twirling villainy.

Next, poor Vera Farmyga as Madolyn, the love interest for both the moles. Her role is ridiculously under-written, rendering her absolutely incapable of taking any positive action throughout the course of the film – there is simply nothing independent in the part. This might not have made itself apparent if it weren’t for the advertising of The Departed constantly referencing Scorcese’s other gangster films, notably Casino and Goodfellas. Compared to the parts played by Sharon Stone and Lorraine Bracco, respectively, in those films – this is a joke.

I didn’t dislike The Departed, although it might sound like I did. It entertained me and overall the performances were strong. Mark Wahlberg had a dream role and seemed to have fun chewing the scenery. The music is used fantastically well and the opening montage is a great introduction to the characters. Unfortunately this is a lesser late work of a master – certainly not in the same league as his earlier criminal epics. The rat symbolism is peculiarly heavy-handed and the pacing is a little screwy in the last third. It’s good. It’s just not great.