After the crushing disappointment of Gangs of New York (a film whose savage editing somehow made it seem even longer), it's a pleasure to be able to announce a partial return to form for both director Martin Scorsese and leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. Based on an inventive script by Gladiator screenwriter John Logan, The Aviator traces the early life and career of the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, described by one character as having spent the Second World War "making a dirty movie and building planes that don't fly". The "dirty movie" in question was the notorious potboiler The Outlaw, over whose bosomy pleasures Hughes fought a long-running battle with the American censors. As for the planes, these ranged from the daring contraptions in which he briefly became "the fastest man on the planet" (and occasionally plummeted from the skies) to the Hercules - aka "The Spruce Goose" - a gigantic airborne boat that prompted the question: "Can a white elephant fly?"
It's been a long time since audiences have been able to demand perfection from Scorsese (think of the ponderous indulgence of Kundun or the cack-handed popularism of Bringing Out the Dead) and The Aviator is certainly not without its faults. Cate Blanchett wrestles valiantly with the role of Katharine Hepburn (just one of Hughes's glamorous paramours), but her note-perfect rendition of the actress's infamous vocal inflections flirts inevitably with caricature. Meanwhile, Scorsese's attempts to blend newfangled computer-generated effects with old-fashioned model-work results in some startling visual coups (the crashing of Hughes XF-11 into Beverly Hills), but also in some distractingly "modern" visual ticks.
Yet despite its manifest flaws, The Aviator remains an engrossing romp through the fast-lane life of one of America's most entertaining nutballs, by turns absurdly comic and engagingly tragic. Central to its success is a captivating performance by DiCaprio, for whom this has long been a pet project - indeed, he first brought the script to Scorsese's attention. Having paid a small penance for the melodramatic horrors of Titanic with the lightweight fluff of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, DiCaprio here hits his stride as the tormented man-child whose growing brilliance in the fields of both business and technology is matched only by his increasingly infantile obsessions with breasts, soap and bodily cleanliness.
Crucially, although the beginnings of Hughes's infamous descent into urine-bottling reclusiveness are dealt with in the baggy third act, Logan's script for the most part keeps its eyes on the youthful talents that drove Hughes to spend three years filming Hell's Angels while mounting his own real-life battles for the skies. As his opponents in the historic struggle between Trans World and Pan Am, Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin provide terrifically slimy foils for DiCaprio, who affectingly captures the essence of an Ameri- can icon whose weird reputation rivals that of William Randolph Hearst. It may not be Citizen Kane, but The Aviator is an inventive and exhilarating biopic that does thrilling justice to its much-maligned subject.
For those enamoured of the visually stunning (if thematically vacuous) pleasures of Zhang Yimou's international multiplex hit Hero, House of Flying Daggers offers another slice of eye-poppingly exportable Chinese cinema. A strong contender for the 2005 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this handsomely costumed tale of love, honour and betrayal boasts an intriguingly gnomic period plot in which nobody is who they seem, and around which Zhang weaves a patchwork of post-Crouching Tiger-style martial arts theatrics. Like its predecessor, whose breathtaking highlights included a hail of ten thousand arrows, House of Flying Daggers is built upon a succession of dazzling set-pieces that play almost as distinct musical numbers. From an early sequence in which the apparently blind courtesan Mei (Zhang Ziyi) strikes an arena of upturned drums with the flailing arms of her silken robe, through a battle in a bamboo forest in which airborne assassins spring nimbly between shoots, to a climactic confrontation between Leo (Andy Lau) and Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) around whom the seasons change even as they cross swords, this film oozes visual poetry from every pore.
Those au fait with "authentic" Chinese cinema may dismiss Zhang's recent international successes for offering picture-postcard versions of east Asian culture tailor-made to woo western cinematic tourists. Yet, as the flip side to Hero's stark tale of self-sublimation, House of Flying Daggers addresses universal themes of loss and love that raise it above the level of mere formalistic ritual. Purists may sniff, but as an ignorant western dilettante, I was swept away on a wave of ravishing entertainment.