Shattered Politics #74: The Aviator (dir by Martin Scorsese)


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“The way of the future.” — Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Aviator (2004)

As I recently rewatched the 2004 best picture nominee, The Aviator, I realized that, in the film’s scheme of things, Ava Gardner was far more important than Katharine Hepburn.  (Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that Kate Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner was far more important than Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn.)

Over the course of the film, both Hepburn and Gardner are involved with billionaire-turned aviator-turned film director Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).  Throughout the film, Katherine is portrayed as being flighty, pretentious, and overdramatic.  There’s a lot of dark humor to the scene where Katherine breaks up with Howard, largely because Katharine is incapable of not acting as if she’s making a film.  Her every word is so carefully rehearsed that you have to agree when Howard says that she’s incapable of not giving a performance.  Ava, on the other hand, is always direct.  She has a sense of humor.  She has no trouble telling Howard off.  Whereas Katharine put on airs of being an incurable romantic, Ava tells Howard flat out that she doesn’t love him and is only using him to forward her career.

But, while Katharine Hepburn gets more screen time, it’s Ava Gardner who actually saves Howard’s business.  Towards the end of the film, after Howard has had a nervous breakdown and has locked himself in a hotel room, it’s Ava who suddenly shows up, cleans him, and dresses him.  She’s the one who gives Howard the strength to leave his room and to face down the corrupt senator (Alan Alda) who is investigating his business.

Of course, Howard Hughes is best known for once being the world’s richest recluse.  In the 1960s, Howard locked himself away in a hotel room in Las Vegas and spent the next decade laying naked in bed and watching television.  The Aviator doesn’t deal with this period of Howard’s life but it’s full of scenes where we catch glimpses of Howard’s future.  Throughout the film, we watch as Howard obsessively washes his hands.  We watch as he gives precise instructions on how even the simplest of tasks are to be accomplished.  We watch as he grows increasingly paranoid about the germ-filled outside world.  The film suggests that Howard’s obsessive compulsive disorder both served to make him a great engineer and a great filmmaker while, at the same time, ultimately destroying him.

The Aviator was the second film that DiCaprio made with Scorsese.  And, as bad as DiCaprio may have been in Gangs of New York, he’s absolutely brilliant in The Aviator.  As a character, Howard Hughes has so many quirks and tics that it would have been easy for DiCaprio to go overboard.  Instead, he gives a surprisingly subtle performance.  And, even more importantly as far as I’m concerned, he actually sounds authentically Texan when he speaks.

In many ways, much of The Aviator reminds me of Gangs of New York.  Both films are gorgeously produced period epics that try to cover a lot of material.  Both films are absolute cat nip for history nerds like me.  But, whereas Gangs of New York leaves one feeling vaguely dissatisfied, The Aviator actually improves with subsequent viewings.  Whereas the action in Gangs had no center, The Aviator revolves around Howard and the actor playing him.

While the Aviator starts off with Howard making movies and romancing Katharine Hepburn, it’s at its best when Howard appears before a committee chaired by Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and passionately defends both himself as an engineer and a businessman and the right of innovators everywhere to freely pursue their passion.  The film suggests that Brewster was bribed by Howard’s main business rival, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, in unapologetic villain mode), and it’s hard not to applaud when Howard stands up for himself.

Speaking of which, it’s odd, so soon after reviewing Alan Alda in The Seduction of Joe Tynan, to see Alda playing a far less ethical politician in The Aviator.  That said, Alda’s corrupt performance in The Aviator is a hundred times better than his cutesy work in Joe Tynan.  If anything, Alda gives a performance here that will remind everyone of why they don’t care much for their congressman.

The Aviator was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more low-key Million Dollar Baby.  Scorsese would have to wait until the release of The Departed for one of his films to finally win best picture.

Shattered America #73: Team America: World Police (dir by Trey Parker)


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So, are we once again allowed to watch Team America: World Police?

As you may remember, back in December, the entire nation totally freaked out over the possibility that North Korea might be offended by the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview.  Hackers — who many assumed were working for North Korea — released embarrassing emails that were exchanged among Sony executives and filmmakers.  Barely literate threats were posted, warning that any theater showing The Interview would be blown up.  Common sense should have told us that these were empty threats but instead, everyone panicked.

Sony announced that they would not be releasing The Interview.  The film would never see the light of day.  Overdramatic people like me got on twitter and announced that, if Sony didn’t release The Interview, then free speech was dead.  “It is every American’s duty to see The Interview!” I tweeted, “If you don’t see The Interview, you’re letting the terrorists win!”

Then Sony changed their mind and released The Interview after all.  People got to watch it.  Critics got to slam it.  Free speech lived for yet another day.

As for me, I never got around to watching it.

Uhmm, anyway…

What got forgotten in all of this drama is that some theaters announced that they would show the 2004 film Team America: World Police in the place of the Interview.  In many ways, it was a brilliant idea.  Team America, after all, is a brilliantly profane satire from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Not only was the film a parody of overdone Hollywood blockbusters but it also featured the members of Team America using their powers to take out Kim Jong-il, the father of the political leader targeted for assassination in The Interview.  Even better than that, it featured Team America violently destroying the vapid (and surprisingly well-armed) celebrities who Kim Jong-il had tricked into supporting him.  How can you not love a film that features a puppet of Michael Moore blowing itself up?

Oh, did I mention that the entire movie features puppets?  Because it so does!

The use of puppets allows Parker and Stone to not only create some spectacular action scenes but also to feature parodies of more than a few real-life celebrities, all of whom are portrayed as being stupid, trendy, and easily manipulated.  The fact that Sean Penn saw himself lampooned in the film and then wrote an angry letter to Parker and Stone (ending it with, “Fuck you!”) is one of many reasons to love Team America.

So, we weren’t going to get to see The Interview but at least we could see Team America.  But then Paramount Pictures announced that they were not going to let any theater show Team America.  As annoyed as I was by what happened with The Interview, the ban on Team America was even more annoying.

I mean, we all knew The Interview as probably a really bad film.  But we also knew that Team America was great!  Indeed, banning Team America seemed like exactly the type of thing that one of the film’s puppet celebrities would have demanded.

Plus, as Team America‘s theme song reminded us — “America!  Fuck yeah!”  Bowing down to dictators does not make anyone want to shout, “America!  Fuck yeah!”

More like, “America!  Fuck no!”

Anyway, eventually Sony relented and released The Interview.  But I haven’t heard anything about Team America.  However, it’s currently available on Netflix so I’m going to assume that it is once again legal to watch Team America.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I still felt like I was breaking the law when I recently rewatched it.

Yet another reason to love Team America: World Police.

Shattered Politics #72: Welcome to Mooseport (dir by Donald Petrie)


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The 2004 film comedy Welcome to Mooseport would probably be totally forgotten if not for one thing.  This is the film that was supposedly so bad that co-star Gene Hackman looked at the final cut and then probably looked over at the Oscars he won for The French Connection and Unforgiven and then probably looked back at the final cut and then announced, “I quit!”  There’s a reason why Hackman now spends his time writing novels and, according to most accounts, Welcome to Mooseport is that reason.

In Welcome to Mooseport, Gene Hackman plays Monroe “Eagle” Cole, the former President of the United States.  From the minute we first hear the President’s name, we know exactly what type of film Welcome to Mooseport is going to be.  It’s not enough to give Hackman’s a character a totally over-the-top name like Monroe Cole.  He also has to have a cutesy nickname.  The entire time I watched the film, I found myself wondering if Monroe Cole was listed on the presidential ballots as being Monroe “Eagle” Cole.  Personally, I always find it funny when people feel the need to include their nickname in the credits.  Is it really important for every William out there to let everyone know that some people call him Billy?

Anyway, Eagle is apparently the most popular president ever.  However, he’s also recently divorced and his ex-wife (Christine Baranski, playing the same role that she played in Bulworth) wants all of his property.  Eagle is forced to retire to one of the few residences that he has left, his vacation home in Mooseport, Maine.  In order to keep his wife from claiming that home, Eagle decides to run for mayor of Mooseport…

Now, right here, we’ve got a huge issue.  Eagle’s only motivation for running for mayor is because he doesn’t want to have to give over his vacation home to his wife.  But that could be anyone’s motivation.  One does not have to be President to want to keep the house in a divorce.  It would have been more interesting if Eagle, now out of office and struggling to adjust to no longer being the most powerful man in the world, ran for mayor because he really wanted the job.

But anyway, Eagle is not the only person running for mayor.  Hardware store owner Hardy Harrison (Ray Romano) is also running.  At first, Hardy wants to withdraw but then he sees Eagle flirting with Hardy’s longtime girlfriend (Maura Tierney) and Hardy suddenly decides that he’s going to run and he’s going to win.

I actually like Ray Romano as an actor and he doesn’t give a bad performance here.  But, at the same time, it’s obvious that his scenes were written to capitalize on his TV persona.  It’s easy to imagine stumbling across a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond where Ray runs for mayor and has a panic attack when he loses.  The difference, of course, is that Ray Barone would not have been running against Gene Hackman (much less a former President).

Needless to say, Welcome to Mooseport has a sitcom feel to it.  After every line, you find yourself waiting for a laugh track.  Gene Hackman feels incredibly out-of-place in the film and there’s a discomfort to his performance.  Watching him in this film, you can see the wheels turning in his brain.  You can literally see Gene Hackman thinking, “I’m too old for this shit.”

And I guess he was because, in the 11 years since Welcome to Mooseport was first released, Gene Hackman has not appeared in another film.  Which is bad news for everyone waiting for Welcome to Mooseport Part II

Shattered Politics #71: Gangs of New York (dir by Martin Scorsese)


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Despite the fact that it was nominated for best picture and marked the start of his fantastically successful collaboration with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York does not have the best reputation.  It always seems to be regarded as one of Scorsese’s lesser films and, often times, both The Aviator and The Departed are described as representing a comeback of sorts from Gangs.

To a certain extent, I have to agree.  Gangs of New York is a lesser Scorsese movie but then again, a lesser Scorsese film is still a hundred times better than the greatest films from Brett Ratner or Michael Bay.

The flaws of Gangs of New York are many.  The film, which tells the epic story of how an Irish gang led by Leonard DiCaprio battled a nativist gang led by Daniel Day-Lewis in Civil War-era New York City, runs for nearly 3 hours and yet it somehow still feels rushed and incomplete.  Cameron Diaz is far too contemporary of an actress to be truly believable as a 19th century pickpocket.  For that matter, Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the worst performances of his career, coming across as being one-note and shrill.  If you only knew DiCaprio from his work in Gangs of New York, you would have a hard time believing that he was capable of doing the type of work that he did in Inception or The Wolf of Wall Street.

And yet, Gangs of New York is one of those flawed films that I can’t help but enjoy.

First off, on a purely personal level, how can I not love a film about how terribly the Irish were treated in the 19th Century?  Seriously, the Irish were regarded as if they were somehow subhuman.  They were attacked for being Catholic.  They were viewed as being criminals.  An entire freaking political party — the American party — was formed specifically to keep the Irish out.  But you know what?  We Irish kept coming, we kept fighting for our rights, and now everyone wishes they could be one of us!

Secondly, and this should not a shock when you consider that the film was directed by Martin Scorsese, the film looks absolutely gorgeous!  Despite the fact that it’s takes place in a 19th century slum and most of the characters are poor, Gangs of New York is a visual feast.  I loved the ornate sets and all the colorful clothes.  I loved the attention to detail that was put into everything.

(My favorite visual from the film: Daniel Day-Lewis and his entourage walking down a street while fireworks explode directly over Day-Lewis’s shoulder.)

Third, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.  One reason why DiCaprio’s performance is so noticeably bad is because he’s acting opposite Day-Lewis.  Sporting a handle-bar mustache and speaking in an almost satirically exaggerated New York accent, Day-Lewis turns Bill into one cinema’s greatest villains.

Add to that, the great Italian actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice show up for a few minutes, playing Simon Legree in a theatrical production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!  Scorsese should make more films with Radice.

But, perhaps the main reason why I enjoy Gangs of New York is because, as I’ve mentioned so many times in the past, I really am a big history nerd.  And Gangs of New York deals with a period in American history that really doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.  While we all know that the Civil War started when the South seceded from the union, what is often forgotten is that the North was not united in their support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union.  In fact, the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, was such a strong supporter of the Confederacy that he, at one point, suggested that New York City should secede from the union as well.  And when Lincoln instituted the draft, NYC — and several other cities in the north — exploded into riots.

Of course, Gangs of New York is not a 100% historically accurate.  For one thing, it compresses the time frame of the draft riots and — as films often do — it downplays the culture of Northern racism and instead portrays racists like Bill Cutting as being the exception to the rule.  But, even with that in mind, Gangs of New York still serves as a good starting point for those who want to learn more about American history than what they’ve been told in school.

My favorite parts of Gangs of New York dealt not with how the gangs fought each other but instead how the gangs were used as political foot soldiers.  One of the major supporting characters in Gangs of New York is William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a real-life politician who was at the center of one of America’s first major political scandals.  When we first meet Tweed, he is using Bill Cutting’s gang to fix elections.  However, as the film progresses, Tweed comes to realize that the political future of New York rests with the Irish.  So, Tweed starts using the Irish gang to fix elections.  For those of us who are into political history, the Boss Tweed scenes are a lot of fun.

Gangs of New York has its flaws.  It’s the type of project that, if it were made today, it would probably be a series on HBO and it would win all sorts of awards.  (Actually, it did kinda.  It was called Boardwalk Empire.)  It’s not perfect, but I like it.