Martin Scorsese taking on the life of Howard Hughes is a massive undertaking, and one he approached with much care. After watching his wonderful film "The Aviator" again, I am just as awestruck as I was the first time. You see, Howard Hughes is such a towering and legendary figure in history, I never knew what stories to believe, and I was always fascinated by the stories of his seclusion, and of course the notorious biography hoax that happened in the seventies. Not to mention the strange stories of his famous wooden plane, the 'Spruce Goose'.
But Hughes was truly so much more than just a brilliant and tortured genius, and I really couldn't fathom it until this film, which truly captures his magnificent and in some ways tragic life in the only way it deserves to be shown, as a brilliant and shining epic that is completely hypnotic from beginning to end.
It is easy to see how much Scorsese admires this man, and obviously he relates to him in many ways, and I consider this film one of the best bio pictures ever filmed. In fact, it occurs to me that taking on the very subject of his film, Scorsese is much like Hughes himself because the subject is deep, complicated and seemingly impossible to capture, and yet Scorsese does it, and makes it appear effortless in doing so. Especially when you consider how Hughes would not only avoid the media, but was also was a master at manipulating it. He is certainly one of the most difficult people to make a film about that I can possibly imagine. He basically focuses on three crucial decades that starts in the roaring twenties and ends in the forties, and what a fantastic and unlikely life it was.
Written by John Logan, this film boasts a truly impressive cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes.
The film begins by showing us a young (nine year old) Hughes being bathed by his mother, who warns him of the diseases in the world that await him. This scene is disturbing on a couple of levels, because as we learn later, Howard Hughes develops an obsession with germs that obviously started in his boyhood. The scene is also directed with a subtle and mildly suggestive sensuality that is dark and disturbing. This scene looked terrible on standard DVD, but I must say, the black levels are greatly improved and the shadows take on a whole new meaning.
Flash forward to the first period in Hughes' life: his life as a filmmaker. He is filming what was at the time, the most ambitious and expensive war epics of all time, a film called "Hell's Angels". Amassing a fortune from a Houston toll company, it is clear from the beginning that Hughes has no limits, his passion to get everything right on this film is making him a target of ridicule in the Hollywood media, and indeed the audaciousness and budget of this film is mind boggling for it's time. The person hired to oversee his manic spending is Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), and it is a full time job overseeing the largest privately owned air force on the planet.
At a very well filmed Hollywood club sequence we see not only how the executives thought he was naive and out of control, we also witness the amazing amount of power he had over women, not to mention his strange aversion to someone eating off of his plate and his strange fixation on milk. And of course he is hanging out with the legendary Errol Flynn (played by Jude Law), what a magical life it was.
Upon watching the dailies, Hughes realizes they must have clouds in the background in order to detect the speed of the planes during the famous dogfight sequence, he ends up hiring a meteorologist named Professor Fitz (Ian Helm) who we end up feeling sorry for simply because of the impossibility of his task. Hughes wants clouds, you see, "like giant breasts filled with milk", and he doesn't mind waiting; they end up waiting a very expensive eight months, but they finally get their clouds. And this sequence with Helm going bonkers is priceless. Also, I really get a kick out of the amazing dogfighting sequence, like all of the film it is beautifully shot, and the special effects are breathtaking.
Finally the film is completed, but this is around the same time as the release of the first talking motion pictures and of course, this means the whole film will need to be redone and millions more spent. DiCaprio plays Hughes as a man who will have his way by any means necessary, and it simply doesn't matter how much money or time it will take for him to complete his vision. If you were the best at what you did, he would hire you on the spot at double or triple what you were being paid, and it appeared everyone who was anyone was on his payroll.
Eventually, and not surprisingly, the world was amazed at the final product and he is ultimately justified. He goes to the premiere with none other than the beautiful Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), and the sequences of the red carpet and the exploding flash bulbs of the cameras in slow motion are classic Scorsese. That night, he was the toast of the town, and Hughes eventually went on to make a couple of other films, but his true passion was for airplanes and aviation, as you may have guessed.
One of the films most amazing feats is it really captures the mental disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which Hughes suffered from. DiCaprio's performance is outstanding, and this illness truly looks tormenting in every way. Sadly, it is the reason Hughes was probably never happy, and that is the ultimate joke of fate, that a man could have such a wonderful and fantastic life, and never slow down or stop thinking and dwelling long enough to actually enjoy it. It is truly tragic that this man was probably never really happy, although he came close when he tried to settle down with Katharine Hepburn.
The film justifiably runs about 170 minutes, and during this runtime we witness his doomed relationship with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett's Oscar winning performance), his obsession with breaking world records for flying his specially designed aircraft, his invention of commercial air flight, intense battles with the MPAA and a notoriously corrupt Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) who is out to destroy him because of interest in Pan Am versus Hughes' airline TWA. We also witness his amazing survival of a most intense air crash. He also seduces more women, like the famous actress Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), but he never seems satisfied. His descent into mental disorder is very difficult to watch and it becomes clear that the very thing that catapulted him into fame and notoriety is the very thing that could destroy him.
The video on this HD-DVD release from Warner Brothers is 1080p encoded using VC-1 and is truly something I was looking forward to. You see, Martin Scorsese actually manipulated the film for this picture in quite a few interesting ways. First off, about half of the film attempts to mimic a special filming process called Multicolor which is a two color process that basically was very heavy on the reds and blues. In other words Scorsese went to great lengths to achieve these old style film looks and feelings, more so than most film directors. His love of film and of course the huge amount of time and energy he takes actually restoring classic films like the recent and wonderful release of "The Searchers" is well documented. I haven't found out if this is a director approved transfer or not, but I would be shocked if it wasn't. Thankfully, this film looks just as good as I had hoped it would. All of the special techniques used shine through brightly, and the colors are dead on, the sharpness and detail add a whole new level to the enjoyment of the picture, and to say this transfer looks very film-like is definitely an understatement. Scorsese always fills the screen with a vast amount of detailed objects and this period piece is no exception. All of the finely detailed objects in the background stand out like never before, and like I mentioned before, the black levels appear to be dead on. This transfer is outstanding in every way, and the high definition format is perfect for this type of film. In fact, I was blown away.
The sound is sadly not in Dolby Digital TrueHD, which is a shame. Not to say that this Dolby Digital Plus track isn't very good, because it is very effective, although it isn't really as heavy in the surround department area as you may expect. Still, the airplane sequences and the nightclubs and of course the wonderful score by Howard Shore shine through nicely. All of the dialogue comes through clean and crisp and easy to understand. Just as his films have much to see, we also have many sounds to hear, and his use of sound can be very exciting and stimulating to the mind, not to mention mood altering. That's why I really wanted a bit more out of the audio. Not the best I've heard but good enough.
The special features on this disc are magnificent by the way, just as well put together, intelligent, insightful and perceptive as you should expect from a movie about a tortured brilliant icon of history directed by an equally complex and brilliant filmmaker. They are simply outstanding and certainly rise above most of the fluff we are used to that they shell out on most discs. All are in standard definition except the theatrical trailer.
This also happens to contain one of the most amazing commentaries ever recorded in my opinion, because Scorsese really knows his subject and the whole thing is filled with wonderful stories like when he screened "Hell's Angels" for some of the worlds most famous directors (including Spielberg) and how they were all completely blown away by the Zeppelin sequence. We also have Michael Mann (producer) and Thelma Shoonmaker. You will love this commentary.
My second favorite feature is a 44 minute documentary from the History Channel called 'Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes' which is quite simply amazing to watch. We all know about The History Channels' reputation for captivating documentaries but this is truly wonderful to experience after watching the film depiction of his life. It has tons of real footage and is just what this release needs to really stand out. Very well made, and like I said, indispensable. Just what you'll want to watch after the film, you will learn even more about this fascinating person.
'An Evening With Leonardo DiCaprio And Alan Alda' is also wonderful, it's just them sitting up on a stage talking about the film and how repulsive a character Alda plays. Wonderful, and it runs about 30 minutes. It's great to watch these two sit and talk, they seem to get along great.
These are my favorites, but we have plenty more, and all of them are excellent and thought provoking. 'Deleted Scene' is 2 minutes long and just involves Hughes describing an accident.
'The Wainright Family' runs about 5 minutes and concerns lounge singing from that era. 'A Life Without Limits: The Making Of the Aviator' is 12 minutes and is basically EPK material. 'The Role Of Howard Hughes In Aviation History' is about 15 minutes and covers some of the same ground as the documentary. 'The Affliction Of Howard Hughes: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder' and 'OCD Panel Discussion' both run about fifteen minutes and go into detail about this fascinating but tragic sickness.
'The Visual Effects Of The Aviator' is about twelve minutes long, and ''Constructing The Aviator: The Work Of Dante Ferreti' is about 6 minutes and is great, especially if you love Southern California and Hollywood during the golden Age, they tell you how it was pulled off so convincingly.
'Costuming the Aviator: The Work Of Sandy Powell' shows us just how detailed they became as far as dressing this film. It runs about 4 minutes.
'The Age Of Glamour: The Hair And Makeup Of The Aviator' is 8 minutes. We also have a brilliant and perceptive feature involving the always entertaining and passionate Howard Shore called 'Scoring The Aviator'.
So, as you can see this is a very complete and some may even call obsessive group of special features, and for those who want even more, there are some very good books out there on this subject.
This is a crowning achievement in the HD-DVD catalog because we get this stunning and brilliant motion picture and many hours of bonus features that are top of the line, and I find it hard to believe it's all on one disc. Wonderful, I highly recommend this title to everyone, it is simply mind boggling. This man had such a wonderful and fantastic life, and yes it is tragic the way it ended up. I'm just happy that we can finally wrap our minds around the big picture and not simply focus on his reclusiveness or eccentricities. What an achievement in film. Bravo!