By Leonard KladyThe Aviator is brought to life in bold and sumptuous sets created by Dante Ferretti that evoke a time when the grandiose was in fashion. It is a paean to a bygone era particularly in the way that Sandy Powell’s costumes evoke the moment and marry style to the character of real life icons. The floating grace of Robert Richardson’s camerawork has been a hallmark of his career, and it’s impossible to imagine as smooth a marriage of images and digital effects. In cameraman Tom Stern, Million Dollar Baby director Eastwood has found a kindred spirit when it comes to embracing the darkness. There’s a poetic simplicity in production designer Henry Bumstead’s work in the creation of the gym, its office, recesses and stark exterior. But one of the picture’s most potent elements is the largely subliminal power of its use of sound. The impact of a gloved fist against a punching bag, the slow pounding of feet skipping rope and other repetitive noises create a rhythm that compliments editor Joel Cox’s tempered, measured cutting.Two of cinemas most iconoclastic talents—Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood—are pretty much in top form for the holidays with their latest movies, The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby. On the surface, the two films are diametric opposites with the former taking a look backward in history to the iconographic life of Howard Hughes. It’s epic and operatic while Baby is intimate, gritty and sees life at street level as opposed to the penthouse. Still, both movies share meticulous attention to detail whether it be a character tic or the encrusted wallpaper that’s fraying to expose several other layers of encrusted faded splendor.Hughes had one of those lives so rich in myth and history that it’s hard to image less than a miniseries to encompass its breadth and depth. In past movies he’s invariably taken second billing, though the likes of Warren Beatty and Nicholas Cage have wanted to play him and directors such as Brian DePalma and Michael Mann have attempted to mount biopics dating back to 1975. The Aviator, written by John Logan, spans about 20 years from the time Hughes was developing a public profile in the 1930s through the sole flight of the Spruce Goose, after which he largely absented himself from the spotlight.Though he was literally an aviator, the title and story provide the high soaring saga with a metaphoric strain. These were giddy times in Hollywood where the film opens with the loose cannon directing and financing Hell’s Angels, a World War I flying extravaganza. In the opening sequences Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is established as a mercurial personality who is a cold-blooded businessman, a charmer that can talk your pants off and a slightly flaky dreamer who will not de deterred by logic.It’s a world of klieg lights, nightclubs and formal attire that rushes by like a thunderbolt. Yet there’s no sense of cut corners in this heady environment envisioned by Scorsese and brought to life in bold and sumptuous sets created by Dante Ferretti that evoke a time when the grandiose was in fashion. It is a paean to a bygone era particularly in the way that Sandy Powell’s costumes evoke the moment and marry style to the character of real life icons from Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) to Erroll Flynn (Jude Law) that were a significant part of Hughes’ life.The initial dizzying razzle dazzle in truth masks a narrative searching for direction. It really isn’t until he becomes involved with Hepburn that the picture finds its grounding and Hughes’ vulnerability becomes the focus. The script makes a glancing attempt to explain the precarious financial balance he employed to mortgage assets from viable businesses against more ethereal pursuits. What comes across most forcefully is a rock-hard resolve in the face of physical tics and obsessive behavior that borders on delusion.The Aviator has the spirit of one of those classy studio films from the very time it depicts. Obviously the tools have changed and that’s most apparent in the floating grace of Robert Richardson’s camerawork that has been a hallmark of his career. It’s impossible to imagine as smooth a marriage of images and digital effects (particularly in the assorted flying sequences and especially in the harrowing depiction of the crash landing of a test flight into the heart of Beverly Hills) could occur prior to recent technical innovations. And even the full-blood score by Howard Shore mixed with vintage songs has the pitch-perfect tone of contemporary cinema rather than its bygone antecedents.The film is technically pristine in every department and cemented by both impeccable direction and a stunning, variegated performance from DiCaprio. In the end it’s a portrait so vibrant and touchingly sad one cannot help but be emotionally moved.There’s a different sort of emotional punch in Million Dollar Baby that derives from more than the setting in the boxing ring. It’s a left hook that one should have foreseen but nonetheless lands powerfully in the solar plexus.The bare bones of a story centers on a trainer/manager (Clint Eastwood) who winds up taking on—against his better judgment—a female pugilist (Hilary Swank). His tatty gym, slightly antiquated equipment and misfit denizens lend themselves to a darkly evocative world that has infused the filmmaker’s best work from Bird to Unforgiven.In cameraman Tom Stern, Eastwood has found a kindred spirit when it comes to embracing the darkness. The milieu of the Hit Pit, where much of the action unfolds, is a dingy haven where infrequent lighting casts irregular pools of light and the sparring in the ring is invariable pictured in silhouette.There’s a poetic simplicity in production designer Henry Bumstead’s work in the creation of the gym, its office, recesses and stark exterior. And as the story evolves and the boxer Maggie Fitzgerald tastes the limelight, Bumstead delights in creating sets that stand out in sharp contrast with a quality that borders on the surreal. That contrast is also underlined in a score that fluctuates between simple single instrument melodies to more elaborate orchestral arrangements.But one of the picture’s most potent elements is the largely subliminal power of its use of sound. The impact of a gloved fist against a punching bag, the slow pounding of feet skipping rope and other repetitive noises create a rhythm that compliments editor Joel Cox’s tempered, measured cutting that is a trademark of the Eastwood storytelling style.Though the film suggests little more than a grittier, distaff version of Rocky, one would be hard pressed to presume such a simple agenda from this particular filmmaker. And it’s here that the aforementioned left hook appears. What are the consequences of getting the championship belt? What are the obstacles, impediments and distractions and what if everything goes wrong despite the best training and intentions?Million Dollar Baby is a first-class rollercoaster ride. And though I’m not quite ready to buy another ticket, I’m sure glad to have had the experience.
Written by Len Klady