The Aviator (2004)

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, Adam Scott, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: A biopic depicting the early life of legendary director, producer and aviator Howard Hughes

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Alda), Supporting Actress (Blanchett)*, Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Art Direction*, Cinematography*, Costume Design*, Film Editing*

Howard Hughes is a terrific subject for a movie, but I’m not sure this was the best way to tell it. I do appreciate that it wanted to focus on the earlier parts of his life before his mental illness consumed what was once a great pioneer in aviation and filmmaking (although with a notable exception I will get to), but something about it felt lacking. DiCaprio has never really impressed me that much as an actor: solid, but unexceptional and I never got everybody bemoaning him not winning an Oscar for so many years-people like Peter O’Toole, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton sure but not him. This film did nothing to change my opinion-in the kind of role that feels like it’s born to win an Oscar (larger than life famous person with a tragic mental illness), only rarely did his performance draw me in with the two bathroom scenes being his best work as you can really feel Hughes’ thought processes, OCD and paranoia through the acting and directing. In terms of other actors, Blanchett pretty much is Katharine Hepburn, or at least like the public thinks of her; the difference between the Katharine Hepburn you saw in her movies and the real Katharine Hepburn (at least based off the handful of interviews I’ve seen) are so blurry that it’s hard to fault Blanchett for basically studying her early films for her performance, but to me it still came off as just a touch artificial.

One thing I did enjoy a lot was the color tinting they did in post-production that, when used, did a fantastic job of reproducing the film color style of the given period in the film-in the early to mid 1930s parts, the greens, blues and reds are dead-on and the film looks terrific throughout. But overall, a pretty alright movie with honorable intentions, but at 170 minutes it ultimately it feels a little too long and DiCaprio’s performance never grabbed me. A Howard Hughes biopic sounds like a slam dunk, but I left underwhelmed.

Rating: C+

Finding Neverland (2004)

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Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Freddie Highmore

Director: Marc Forster

Summary: The story of J.M. Barrie’s friendship with a family who inspired him to create Peter Pan

Other Nominations: Actor (Depp), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing

This was really the Kate Winslet movie from this year that got nominated and I have to watch? Not Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Sigh.

For me, stories about irrepressible innocent dreamers with childlike wonder seen in an unambiguously positive light rarely appeal to me and also always seem to create “stuffy serious no fun allowed” villain characters so they have an opponent (which is absolutely the case here with Christie’s character, who is also the “rich stuffy serious no fun allowed” type of villain). I can absolutely enjoy a wholly sentimental movie that evokes a sense of magic and wonder (Field of Dreams, E.T., Miracle on 34th Street being some from this project that are great examples), but that almost never happens here (the big exception of the ending scenes where they stage Peter Pan at Winslet’s house, which are great). Depp is pretty good, although this is nowhere near his best work and his nomination surprises me, and Winslet is fine (seemingly the bare minimum for her) but doesn’t get a whole lot to work with-actually, no one gets much except for Depp and Highmore, who’s good for a child actor. Basically, what we have here is a thoroughly unmemorable but still decent (and importantly, at an hour and 40 minutes, short) movie that really shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture but was probably due to the Harvey Weinstein’s warlock powers.

Rating: C

*Million Dollar Baby (2004)*

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Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter (his first film), Brian F. O’Byrne, Lucia Rijker, Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena

Director: Clint Eastwood

Summary: A determined woman works with a hardened boxing trainer to become a professional

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Eastwood), Actress (Swank)*, Supporting Actor (Freeman)*, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

A simple, stripped down and endearing movie with a…surprising…third act if you weren’t spoiled about it coming in (which I was). With her Oscar-winning performance her, Hilary Swank joined Luise Rainer and Glenda Jackson as the most forgotten members on the “Actresses with Multiple Best Actress Oscars” list for the same reasons as the other two: they all started off with a bang winning two awards in quick succession and then did almost nothing of note afterwards. Regardless, she is excellent in the role: besides the obvious physical dedication required for it, she also possess the pure goodness and earnestness needed for it in spades. Eastwood plays a crusty, grumbling old man, aka basically every role he’s had since 1990, but he always does it well and in the third act displays a lot of genuine pathos. I would be surprised though that Freeman won an Oscar for his solid but not especially noteworthy performance, except that every man, woman and child loves Morgan Freeman and he should have an Oscar to his name, so fine.

The story here is simple but effective, about taking risks and trusting others, moving on from sins of the past, and broadly about the classic American dream of reaching the top through nothing else besides heart and hard work; however, what ultimately makes the film memorable is its basic story about a female boxer wanting to make something of herself and having a sort of father-daughter relationship with an old trainer who is estranged from his own daughter and sees an opportunity to do it right this time, and how well these two characters are written and acted. The film never loses focus on what really matters and the result, along with a talented director, is a mostly great screenplay and overall film. The only thing about the screenplay that I thought could have been better was its total reliance on (multiple) pure evil one-dimensional villain characters, which stuck out as overbearing in a film like this; also, how is the women’s champion not banned from the sport after literally every fight of hers? That one just kind of annoyed me as the film abandoned all real-world logic for the sake of narrative there.

I would be remiss to not mention the “twist”, or that the third act is basically an avalanche of sadness. I didn’t have a problem with Eastwood’s character’s decision because I don’t necessarily think the filmmakers endorsed his actions (his is a deeply flawed and troubled character after all), but it does feel like the film stacked the deck a little too hard and reveled in misery just a bit too much to get the audience there leading up to it. With all that said, this is still a really poignant film that is well worth watching for the dynamic between the main two characters and their respective performances.

Rating: B+

Ray (2004)

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Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Sharon Warren, C.J. Sanders, Wendell Pierce, Terrence Howard

Director: Taylor Hackford

Summary: The story of musician Ray Charles, from his humble beginnings in the South to stardom in the 1950’s and 60’s

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Foxx)*, Sound Mixing*, Costume Design, Film Editing

A solid biopic, although not without flaws. I liked how the film did not sugarcoat just how deeply flawed Charles was (constantly cheating on his wife, being a heroin addict, turning his back on some of his friends for reasons of business), while celebrating how remarkable his achievements were as a blind man from a poor family in the South. The film is most noted for Foxx’s Oscar-winning performance, and you can see why: he was totally committed to the role, his performance radiates both the charm that made so many people gravitate towards him and the underlying darkness within him, haunted by his past; here though is where I have one complaint-the film posits that he was forever haunted by the death of his brother that he felt responsible for when they were children. While his brother did die, the way it happened is significantly different than as depicted in the film and apparently this wasn’t something that he couldn’t mentally escape from in real life (the death of his mother is a different story though). This, along with how they wholly fabricate Charles refusing to play at any segregated venue and him being banned from playing in Georgia, are major aspects of the film that are from the whole cloth and are a black mark against anything strictly trying to be a biopic like this is, especially when there’s more than enough interest and drama without making things like that up. Still, even though the film is a little long at over 2 ½ hours, Foxx’s performance is good, Charles’ music is good to listen to, and it paints a nuanced and mostly engaging portrait of a legendary artist.

Rating: B-

Sideways (2004)

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Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Director: Alexander Payne

Summary: Two men reaching middle age with not much to show for it embark on a week-long road trip through California’s wine country just as one is about to take a trip down the aisle

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Madsen), Adapted Screenplay*

Basically, this is the kind of movie that fits my sensibilities to a T. I’d heard of it and remembered it had good reviews when it first came out, but I’d never had an urge to watch it and can’t imagine I ever would have if not for this project. Where to begin? The leads are extremely well-written: relatable but often unlikeable and pathetic characters who play off each other perfectly, and the performances for the two are fantastic (how Giamatti wasn’t nominated here, I have no idea).  Beyond just the leads, the screenplay in general is a well-oiled machine, combining a bleak comedic streak with genuine pathos and great dialogue. Besides Giamatti, I would have also given two additional nominations to the film: the low-key jazz score which fits perfectly and the cinematography, which isn’t the kind of flashy, taking shots of beautiful scenery cinematography that usually gets nominated, but the shot composition is consistently excellent and it uses the camera’s focus well. Movies like this are why I’m happy I did this project.

Rating: A

2004 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2004

The Incredibles

The Passion of the Christ

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Shaun of the Dead

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Sea Inside

Mean Girls

Fahrenheit 9/11

The Notebook

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Saw

Team America: World Police

Kung Fu Hustle

Hotel Rwanda

Before Sunset

Howl’s Moving Castle

Downfall

2004 Nominees in Review

Sideways: A

Million Dollar Baby: B+ (Won Best Picture)

Ray: B-

The Aviator: C+

Finding Neverland: C

I liked Million Dollar Baby, and it’s one of the better nominees of the last 5 years or so from this project…but Sideways is just terrific. I’m glad it got at least some recognition from the Academy (winning Best Adapted Screenplay), but I would have easily given it Best Picture. The other three nominees (all based on true stories actually), are pretty pedestrian as a group, with The Aviator being the biggest disappointment to me, and another underwhelming film from Scorsese from this period from 2002-2013 where five of his six films got nominated (compared to his career from 1967-2001 where only three of his films got nominated). Still, any year with multiple really strong films is fairly good in my book.

For 2005: Ang Lee’s was called the “pride of Chinese people all over the world” after his Oscar win for this movie…which was banned from being shown in China; This was (oddly enough) the first of two films about Truman Capote researching and writing his novel “In Cold Blood” that were released to acclaim in back-to-back years; Oddly enough, this film had its first screening previous to the first screening of the previous Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby-both of which were written by Paul Haggis; George Clooney was paid $1 each to star, write and produce this movie so that it could maintain a low budget; and Guri Weinberg plays his real-life father, Moshe Weinberg, in the movie, who the first victim of the Munich Olympics massacre.