Over the next few weeks, the holiday movie season will flood local theaters with year-end awards contenders. In the first of a two-part roundup to be continued next week, the Scene offers an advance peek at several of the year's most anticipated releases.
Mile high club
Martin Scorsese is often tagged our Greatest Living Filmmaker, especially when channeling mean-street life, suffocation and Catholic guilt. But in interviews, and in his A Personal Journey essay film, he has wistfully mentioned his desire to work as a "smuggler"one of those Golden Age directors-for-hire who took whatever job was handed him, then snuck in his own interests and obsessions. Scorsese carries too much baggage now to get the chance, but The Aviator, a big, glossy movie-mag of a movie, is the closest he's come since the early '70s. The most subversive thing Scorsese can sneak into a movie now is unironic old-school Hollywood pizzazz.
That's the primary strength and pleasure of The Aviator, a jet-speed bio-pic of the young Howard Hughes pitched somewhere between The Right Stuff and a Vanity Fair photo spread. Going in, Leonardo DiCaprio seems too slight a choice for Hughes, the squirrelly dynamo who bulled his way into the movie and aviation industry before declining into mad seclusion. But he's inside the role before we get to worry whether he's right for it or not. The movie bolts up to him in mid-stride, as he commands a private air force on the set of his 1930 dogfight epic Hell's Angels, and it doesn't stop for breath until he's challenged airline giant PanAm for dominance of the skies.
Bolstered by the sweep of John Logan's script, the movie's first half is exhilarating mainstream entertainment, a whirlwind of death-defying crashes, celebrity clinches and sturdy bio-pic conventions dotted with chilling glimpses of Hughes' neurosis. The gleaming planes are as seductive a symbol of power and aspiration as the gangsters' massive sedans in GoodFellas, and the idea of filmmaking as daredevil obsession rouses Scorsese to giddy heights of kineticism. Throughout, Robert Richardson's carefully modulated color cinematography and Thelma Schoonmaker's hair-trigger editing combine to evoke pure sensation.
Surprisingly, it's the "edgier" scenes of Hughes withdrawing into private torment that come off as forced and repetitive. And for all the stunt casting of contemporary celebrities as matinee idols, only Cate Blanchett's brazen, brilliant Katharine Hepburn fulfills the conception: playing Hepburn's onscreen persona to a flighty tee, she's a starstruck kid's dream of what a movie star is like offscreen. The film recovers, though, for an exciting courtroom-drama finale capped by a terrifically sinister last shota nod to Raging Bull's coda that conveys the opposite effect. Still, the Scorsese movie it most resembles is his 1978 musical misfire New York, New York, also a blend of realism and artificial effects, of contemporary grit and movie-buff gloss. Its pleasures are mostly on the surfacebut damn, what a surface! (Opens Dec. 25)
Wes Anderson's sea world
Some people are bound to call Wes Anderson's whimsical serio-comedy The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou a mere retread of the writer-director's cult favorites Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, and that's not entirely wrong. Anderson favorite Bill Murray returns, this time playing Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-like ocean explorer leading an expedition of eccentrics on a hunt for the rare "jaguar shark" that ate his best friend. Zissou is past his prime as a scientist and a documentary film star, just like the former child prodigies in Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums, and his capricious self-absorption gets tested when Owen Wilson, playing a man claiming to be his son, causes him to reevaluate his lifeshades of Gene Hackman's aloof patriarch in Tenenbaums.
But The Life Aquatic isn't really the product of creative bankruptcy so much as the third film of a trilogy with interlocking themes. Anderson's debut feature Bottle Rocket introduced his laconic humor and preoccupation with deluded romantics, but not until the follow-up Rushmore did the director become caught up in building meticulous little worlds populated by cartoonish little characters. From Rushmore on, Anderson (with co-writers Wilson and, on Life Aquatic, Noah Baumbach) has been spoofing theatrical pretensions while ostensibly testing the theories of comic book artist and literary critic Scott McCloud, who argues that audiences naturally identify with more simply drawn characters. Anderson's characters tend to wear uniforms and have recognizable pieces of shtick, which distances some viewers emotionally, but draws others in.
In the case of Steve Zissou, a love of red ski caps and jumpsuits is tied up with the hero's sense of himself as an archetypal adventurer, and the film treads unsteady ground as Anderson prompts the audience to question how much of Zissou's past glory is real. Meanwhile, the director spins plates left and right, offering up Brazilian covers of David Bowie hits, elaborate tours of Zissou's tree-fort-like ship, Henry Selick-animated super-fish, and a cast of famous faces that includes Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett. People may well complain that Anderson's films don't hang together, but there's scarcely a scene in The Life Aquatic that doesn't bear re-watching for its diorama-like detail and dryly humorous line readings.
Ultimately, what people take away from Anderson's work depends on how much they're willing to fill in blanks. Like the current wave of neo-fantasists (Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem in literature, Chris Ware and Kurt Busiek in comics, The Flaming Lips in music), Anderson relies on a foreknowledge of old pop junk, in his case borrowing the skeleton frames and nostalgic lull of classic children's books and flanking them with adult disillusionment. Just like kid-litfrom Winnie the Pooh to Clifford the Big Red DogRushmore, Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic paint a welcoming portrait of a world where everyone stays close, lovers and nemeses, living and dead. Anderson may eventually exhaust his fans' goodwill if he stays on the same stylistic path, but for now, his world of melancholy dreamers patching up dented lives with the help of discarded friends remains impossibly moving and painfully funny. (Opens Dec. 25)
For those who found Amélie's wall-to-wall whimsy unbearably precious, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest, an expansive wartime romance (think Cold Mountain set in World War I France), likely won't register as much of an improvement. Like its predecessor, A Very Long Engagement is a CGI funhouse and something of a contraption, yet it rarely ceases to dazzle. The combat sequences are especially compelling; the director's mud-spattered palette and seemingly incessant showers of earth and body parts convey war's essential savagery and incoherence like few other films.
Unfortunately, Jeunet's nonstop invention (how many different ways can you film a speeding train?) is ultimately at odds with the narrative's emotional heart. After being court-martialed for self-mutilation, man-child Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is released into no-man's-land, an especially craven form of execution. Yet his constant childhood companion and eventual lover Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) refuses to believe the official notices of his death. Her resultant investigation essentially acts as a structuring device for a string of subplots (and sub-subplots), many of which prove more intriguing than the lovers' central narrative.
Aside from Jodie Foster's affecting cameo as a twice-grieving widow, Jeunet's characters seem underdeveloped, swept under the crush of narrative and visual play. A Very Long Engagement is not only a war epic and romantic melodrama, but also an intricate mystery, a revenge thriller, an institutional cover-up and even a light comedy. Its intricate web of interconnected destinies delivers something of everything and (much) less than the sum of its partslike a shiny bauble soon discarded for more substantive pleasures. (Opens Dec. 22)
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